Posts tagged Jillian Lauren

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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Again, Always: Ethiopia

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The minute we walked off the plane in Addis Ababa this morning, the distinctive smell hit me- some mysterious mixture of frankincense, burning trash, eucalyptus, coffee, and bodies. It’s profoundly human and otherworldly at the same time and lets you know unmistakably that you are in Ethiopia- this glorious and complicated place.

I remembered the last time I walked into that airport. I was holding tight to Scott’s hand, shaking with anxiety and excitement. In only a week, we would finally, finally, be holding our child in our arms.

Tears brimmed in my eyes as the body memory overtook me. Then my mood swung in the opposite direction entirely and I giggled, recalling the hopeful idealists we were then, with all of our big ideas about parenting. Along with those big ideas about who we were, about the world around us, about everything. I look back on those people with a kind of wistful fondness. We were so sure of ourselves, and so totally clueless!

The morning before I left, I awoke as the dawn broke soft grey over the city. I curled myself around my warm, still-sleeping son in the bed and listened to the sound of his even breathing, felt the thumping of his little bird heart, breathed in the smell of him, like fresh bread and grass. I am now in the very place I first met him. It is the farthest I have been from him since that day.

I miss him in my very bones.

What a great gift to be invited to come back to this country that has given me my whole life, really. To once again be amongst its people, so that we might learn from each other and do the essential work of community development and family preservation.

I’m here with Help One Now and an amazing crew of creatives and activists, including Kristen Howerton, Jen Hatmaker and Korie Robertson. Tomorrow we’re going to the village of Gunchire and I will get to do all of my favorite stuff: listening, observing, hearing stories, writing. I can’t wait to share it with you.

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Love Hope

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On the final afternoon of our adoption trip to Ethiopia, we participated in a goodbye ceremony, after which we would be bringing Tariku home for good. Never again would we have to leave him.

By that time, I was beyond exhausted. My spirit of adventure was wearing thin and I was so ready to just be holding my baby in his green bedroom, surrounded by all my groovy baby shower swag. I wanted Whole Foods and clean water and my own sheets and not to have to wait three hours for everything or pass by burning trash every time I walked out the door

During the ceremony, the adoptive families held hands around the living room of the orphanage, while the nannies held the children in the center of the circle and said a few words about each of them. Tariku, looking wide-eyed and confused, wore a little traditional pantsuit, with an embroidered Ethiopian cross on the shirt. He clung to his favorite nanny Fantu.

A translator interpreted, as Fantu said, “Tariku is such a happy boy. He loves to dance when we sing to him. Every day he makes me laugh. You are very lucky. I will miss him. God bless you all.”

She handed him to me, with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Each child put their little hand in a tray of blue paint and left a handprint in a book swollen with pages and pages of these goodbyes. The ceremony was wonderful and moving and sad. At the end, the older children stood in a group and sang some traditional songs, as well as a rousing version of “Old MacDonald.”

E-I-E-I-O, they sang, as my heart fell into my stomach. A fancy grocery store? Nice sheets? I was such an asshole. Those smiling, singing kids were going to, once again in their lives, watch the babies leave with their forever families and then turn around and walk back upstairs to their row of cots.

When the plane left the ground the next day and Tariku was asleep in my arms, I took in a big gulp of air- my first real breath since I had seen his picture three months before. But as soon as the relief had settled into my bones, I felt an acute ache to return.

Our adoption gave us more than the family we were longing for; it also allowed us to experience our interconnectedness with people halfway around the globe, the permeability of the membranes between our lives. Since then, Scott and I have been trying to finagle a return trip. We often wonder- what can we do to work toward a world in which children are not orphaned by poverty? The answers are not always easy. Like a lot of people, we are sometimes overwhelmed and confused by the choices. How can we do the most good in a conscious and respectful way? Is there something we can do beyond writing a check? Is there some greater understanding we can gain, some more immediate action we can take?

Imagine how completely thrilled I was when an opportunity to do exactly this came and knocked on my door, in the form of an invitation to go on the Love Hope Storyteller Ethiopia Trip, with Help One Now. As soon as I learned more about this remarkable organization, I jumped at the chance. We leave in two weeks and I can barely wait.

Our group of artists, storytellers and influencers will have the opportunity to visit the town of Gunchire (Gun-CHEER-ee) in southern Ethiopia. In Gunchire, Help One Now is dedicated to work very close to my heart— orphan prevention. Using a sponsorship model, Help One Now is bringing aid to families who would otherwise be in danger of dissolving due to extreme poverty. Without help, the children of these families will wind up being more sweet faces next to the ones I saw singing at the orphanage.

We have a wildly exciting travel group, including my friend and hero, Rage Against the Minivan’s Kristen Howerton; author, house fixer-upper, rabble rouser and mom extraordinaire Jen Hatmaker; and the very lovely “Commander of Ducks,” Korie Robertson. I promise, we will not bore you!

I’m so excited to go back to the land that gave Scott and me our life’s greatest miracle and so captured our hearts in the process. I’m going to go meet the people of Gunchire and learn about the essential community development work happening there. I’ll be reporting back from the trenches the whole time. I hope you’ll come with me in spirit and hear their stories.

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Then and Now

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We spent a remarkable weekend with T’s “first friends.” Unprompted by me, he calls them his brothers and sisters. The first picture is of the kids when they were still living in a care center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The second one is of the same kids now (in almost the same order- wrangling challenges). I don’t even have words for the juxtaposition of these photos. Just look at these sweet, bright stars. The weekend was hilarious and touching and hard and big and real. I miss the other families already.

I had no idea what Tariku’s adoption would bring into our lives. It’s hard to remember, when sunk in the daily minutiae of mopping an inch bathwater off the floor or arm wrestling for the iPad or trying to teach subtraction. He has truly razed so many walls in my heart. Scott and I just wanted a baby. We weren’t looking explode our world. A bright light turned on all at once and we now have a network of strong and inspiring extended family. Our awareness has expanded and issues like race, belonging, family, trauma, and healing have moved to the forefront of our thoughts and our discussions. We are more compassionate. Above all, we know waaaaay more about airplanes than we ever could have dreamed.

I always knew he was a miracle, I just didn’t grasp the scope of it.

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On Special Needs…

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When I was stuck in traffic after the camp drop-off this morning, I found myself musing about the day I first heard the words “special needs” applied to T. It seems a lifetime ago. I remember the combination of fear and relief I felt. What would this mean to him? To our lives? How had my life strayed so far from any picture I ever had of motherhood? Some part of me felt like I was betraying him every time I said it, by admitting that he wasn’t perfect. Another part of me was grateful that I had some external validation for my concerns about his behaviors- I hadn’t just been imagining it all along.

Special needs. Say it a few times. See how it feels.

You may feel embarrassed. You may feel like you’re getting benched, not allowed out on the field with these other competitive moms who are humble-bragging at the coffee shop about their six-year-old playing Chopin and speaking Mandarin.

That’s okay. Don’t stop. Say it a few more times.

You may find that it begins to change shape in your mind, to grow roots in your heart. You may recognize it as truth, and truth is almost always a relief. You may begin to feel that rather than benching you, it puts you on exactly the right playing field, where you suddenly understand the game.

Say it a few more times. Say it like its no big deal because it isn’t any more. You will begin to hear an echo.

My kid has special needs, too!

You may find that the echo is coming from people that you’d far rather spend time with than the Mandarin-drilling Tiger Moms anyway. You may find that you’re proud to be among this new group of people, that all you had been waiting for was to feel less alone, and now you do. And while it is not all fixed, you have something better than fixed: you have hope.

These were my traffic thoughts this morning. How remarkably different from three years ago, when I used to drive around literally cursing at God. I am so grateful to the special needs community- the parents, the therapists, the educators, the kids. They have given me a life far richer than the one I imagined, when I first envisioned being a mom.

My Tedx Talk!

Here is the talk I gave at Chapman University, about adoption and the role of imagination in forming our identities. Hope you enjoy it! Please pass it along if you do.

On Fear and Soccer

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I’ve been struggling with a bizarre case of massive stage fright. I speak in public a lot, and this anxiety has been an intensely unpleasant aspect of my life for the past two years. When it happens, it’s practically an out-of-body experience. It’s not logical. There’s no talking myself out of it. I do every creative visualization technique in the book, and still I have an overwhelming urge to run for my life out the back door.

All of this was very inconvenient for my Tedx talk last week, at Chapman University. About an hour before I was scheduled to go on, I broke into an empty classroom, lied down on the floor, and tried to shake off the paralysis that had crept into my limbs. My entire body was a block of ice. I couldn’t remember anything. I mean, anything. I couldn’t remember my own address for the release form. It was bonkers. When I actually got up there, it went great (will post the link soon!). But the hours, even days, leading up to it were torture.

So why the hell do I keep doing this to myself?

Here is the answer. Because I have some things I want to say. Also, because I want to know what’s on the other side of this. And because when Tariku hits a wall of fear someday, what will I tell him? Oh yeah- I felt that way once, and I quit?

I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from the World Cup.

I’ve always loved soccer. Here’s me, the early soccer years…

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The World Cup players are warriors. They are amazing. Check out black-eyed Dempsey playing with his broken nose (hot!). They have to know how to lose and keep fighting (which will NOT happen Thursday against Germany, btw). They accept the inevitability that they will screw up sometime, and when they do it will be in front of thousands of people. And they will have to keep playing. When a ball gets by Tim Howard into the goal, he stands back up and stops the next one. Watching the games puts some fight in me

So Tariku and I have been avidly watching, and I’ve been letting the energy crawl into my blood. When I got up on stage last week, I told myself I was getting in the game. And when my son faces something daunting and frightening one day, I will be able to tell him that it is a noble fight, to do the thing that scares you.

GO USA!

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The Move and Everything After

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It’s been a long while. I wish I could say that I’ve been absent because the fam and I have had our toes sunk in the mud by a lake somewhere woodsy, or that we’ve been busy hunting for abalone shells, enjoying these last days of spring before the summer descends.

The truth is, we moved onto a new house in the middle of multiple work deadlines (sorry, Becky, I swear I’ll have the new book finished in a jiffy), the end of the school year, and Scott being in and out of town. I was hardly stopping to smell the roses. The best I could do was convince the movers not to trample the roses.

I had a disorienting experience when I saw at all of our stuff on the truck. Everything looked huge and tiny at the same time. I was like- Who are we, anyway? Who would we be if this truck just drove away and never came back? Scott was like- are you smoking weed? And I was like- way to undermine a poetic moment. And then we moved our entire existence six miles away, to the top of a big hill.

I have missed this blog space, because without it, I lose my frame. I lose my outlet, which has been a life-saver for me over the last six years. Six! I just checked. And in the middle of all this crazy change, I find that it is still here for me, waiting. So hello, again!

We were worried about how T was going to handle the transition. I’m happy to report that he was a peach. He loves the new place. We can see tons of airplanes from our wide windows and that is all T needs to be happy. That and a corn dog once in a while.

In truth, it was me who had the hardest time with the move. Scott was a bit taken aback by my high-strung emotional reaction.

What if the next house doesn’t have good luck? What if it doesn’t keep us safe? I cried to him.

Honey? It’s not the house that keeps us safe.

So, yeah. Some stuff going on. About security and home. About time and loss.

Speaking of time, T just graduated from kindergarten. His school handles things in a low-key way, which I appreciate There are no tiny caps and gowns, no ceremonies. At 12:30pm last Friday, I went and picked him up at school, then we went swimming at his friend’s house and that was that. Next year the grades start to have numbers, and there just aren’t very many of those numbers if you really think about it.

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We were lucky enough to have a remarkable teacher this year. The kind that come around once in a blue moon and you remember for rest of your life. I am deeply grateful to all the teachers out there who have extra love for the kids who struggle- for the outliers, the special ones. The beginning of the year was rocky, but his teacher saw his big bright light and she believed in him. Slowly, he became what she saw him to be. He did beautifully.

He won the Doctor Award at school, because he takes such good care of his friends. I was nearly as proud as the day when he said, out of the blue, “Hey Mama, Lou Reed is cool!” This kid is my hero.

He went to the airport to watch the jets with his Auntie this morning (his Saturday ritual), and before he left he stood next to me and pointed out the picture window toward the airport.

If you ever miss me too much, he said, I’m right there at LAX. It’s not far.

It was never really the house at all.

A Blow to the Head

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I am packing my books, pulling the dusty tomes down from a high shelf, when my dead friend’s poetry chapbook falls and hits me on the head. It is hot pink and stapled at the fold.

How I felt about her art always changed with how I felt about her, and our complicated friendship. It was:

Raw, vulnerable, essential…

or

Indulgent, sentimental, over-exposed.

Shifting all the time.

She made me angry and delighted. She was the one I called every day, with whom I shared a secret band name even though neither of us had any musical talent whatsoever. The one who got a matching tattoo. The one who was always spilling over at the edges. The one whose laugh was not very ladylike- almost exactly like mine. She made me feel less alone.

Dammit, I think, when I pick up the book. There goes my night. Now I’m gonna cry and hit the chocolate. I don’t have time for this. I’m moving, after all. Deadlines, kid on spring break, busybusybusy.

And then I slide down the wall, sit cross-legged on the carpet, and begin to read. How marvelous. To pause and have a visit with her tonight. When all I could think of was a to-do list.

I will meet you anywhere anytime, Jennifer Grant. I miss you every day, my friend.

I am grateful that the universe saw fit to drop her poetry on my head tonight.

Sisters

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She showed up in the lobby of the Omni Hotel in Jacksonville. Scott and T and I were hunkered down in a sitting area around the corner from the door, and there was a mirror on the wall, so I could see her reflection before she spotted us. She was taller than me, shiny and pretty with a mane of wavy red hair, black leather boots, dark jeans with white stitching at the seams and a salmon colored V-neck sweater. She got the blue green eyes- the sister I haven’t seen in twenty years.

Almost everyone who knows me is asking right now… What sister?

Many years after I was born, my birth father had another daughter. I met her once when she was seven and I was twenty. I was still casting about for an authentic sense of identity at the time, an understanding of my own adoption story. As was typical of me, I had boundless curiosity and very few emotional tools with which to metabolize the things that curiosity often unearthed. Instead, I walked away. I was always a runner when things got tough.

Now I am an adoptive mother myself. I have learned to hold different truths at the same time. I have become more comfortable with living in a world of fewer absolutes. This time, when my sister appeared out of the blue with the hope of reconnecting, I ran toward her instead of away.

Florida was surprisingly freezing- 40something degrees, wind blowing, persistent mist. I greeted her swathed in every candy-colored tropical layer I had brought with me, topped with a wool coat my sister-in-law happened to have in her car. My toes were tinged with blue in my open-toed sandals.

My sister has a son almost exactly Tariku’s age, so not only did I have new sister in an instant, but T had a new cousin. The boys were immediately lit-up and at ease. They played hide and seek behind the hotel couches, peek a boo around the granite columns. We piled into her car and navigated the looping highways to a crumbling bowling alley. The trees threatened to swallow the road, a hundred shades of green on green.

So now there is this. A sister. And the million fears and hopes that kind of a sea change brings. Will I invite new family into our life just to wind up disappointing them? Is there room for this? Is there time? Will I get to have this thing I dreamed of in all my childhood imaginary play- a sister to my heart and soul? Is that a corny thing for a grown woman to still long for? Is it smart to introduce an attachment into T’s life when it might not pan out? How do you weave so many threads into the tapestry?

As the boys hurled their lime green balls down the lane, she and I ate gross fried chicken fingers and talked about our lives. We wondered if we looked alike. We traded stories and dreams and apologies. I cried a little. It was a start.

She wrote me a letter when she was eight and cut it into a puzzle. She has saved it all these years and gave it to me when we parted. It is sitting in an envelope on my desk. I take handfuls of it out of the envelope, delicate like flower petals.

What does the puzzle letter say? Not even she remembers. It is a precious thing. I haven’t put it together yet.

Cruising Together

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We are all a little bit dazed today, having just returned from a cruise to the Bahamas. A cruise may not seem like a likely choice of a vacation for us, but this was a rock cruise- a Weezer cruise to be specific. A boat full of bands and music fans, the climax of which was an epic afternoon show in a secluded cove on an island beach.

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I honestly had no idea what to expect. Julie the cruise director subtly organizing love matches during shuffleboard tournaments on the Lido deck? Trying to navigate our five year old through a gauntlet of smoky casinos and boozy spring breakers?

What I discovered is that our week on the cruise wasn’t about pina coladas in the hot tub (though there certainly were a few) or the basking by the pool (it was surprisingly blustery and cold), but rather about family.

My experience of family has always been a shifting thing, kind of like our time on the boat. Sometimes the wind kicked up and the water roiled navy and white as the deck under me listed from side to side so noticeably that I had to lie down and hold onto my head. Sometimes the ocean was kind and ridiculously turquoise, giving no indication of the whole alien world churning beneath its surface.

Our life is rich with extended family, including the Weezer fam. I confess that I have always secretly enjoyed all the annoying minutiae of traveling as a band. I rarely get impatient when being herded through airports, into buses, into arenas, onto gangplanks. I love being in the midst of the whole motley crew of us: the wives, the come-and-go girlfriends, the kids, the babysitters, the parents, the cranky tour manager (sorry, Stu). Once on board, the always thoughtful and creative fans showered us with cards and tiaras and patches and posters, much of it made with their own hands. As a kid running around the house belting out “Join the Circus” from the musical Barnum, this is what I always hoped my life was going to be. A strange dream, maybe, but I was right- it’s pretty wonderful.

Later that afternoon, we met up with yet more of our “relations” for a reunion that makes me tear up every time I think of it. We have remained close with all of the eight families with whom we traveled to Ethiopia on our adoption trip, but T rarely sees the kids because we all live in different parts of the country. To our delight, a couple of them decided to come sail with us.

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I am wary of superimposing my own fantasies of some mystical aspect to their friendship, but objectively, it was pure magic. The kids were beyond thrilled to see each other and kept shouting the things they had in common to literally every passerby who would listen (We were all born in Ethiopia! We all have brown skin! We all have pink parents!). I know that they felt the commonalities extended beyond the obvious, but they didn’t have words for it yet. I’m not sure I do either.

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I can only say that there is a deep connection between these kids, and between us, their parents. It is very relaxing for Scott and me to be around the people with whom we shared the most meaningful time in our life. There is so much that is just recognized and understood and doesn’t need to be explained.

My heart is full every time I think of the unbridled joy on their little faces as they ran around the ship deck, upending everyone’s Mai Tais and commandeering the hot tub.

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As the boat rocked me to sleep each night, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this life of ours, so abundant with music and family.

Thanks to everyone who made the cruise so special.

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Physical Text

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Last weekend aerialist and choreographer Bianca Sapetto and I taught our Physical Text workshop for PEN Center USA.

Fifteen of us met in the bordello-red rehearsal room of the Fais Do-Do nightclub, on a Saturday afternoon. We arrived eager, reticent, caffeinated, exhausted, hopeful, skeptical, open, closed. A myriad of emotions ebbed and flowed throughout the course of the afternoon. The participants brought a level of vulnerability and courage that knocked me out. This workshop was a perfect three-hour distillation of why I find teaching so rejuvanating. Bianca and I were on a high for the whole next week.

This workshop has been a dream of mine and Bianca’s for months. It was born of a conversation we had while hiding out in a sun dappled corner of a coffee shop, brainstorming about our shared passion- how to make art in a fully embodied way.

I told her that in spite of my years of dance classes, I secretly knew that I had learned to put on a good show of things while not truly feeling my body at all. I was always working on the surface, convinced I could fool everyone and they wouldn’t notice I was clumsy, shy, messy, flawed.

The body is our greatest recording device, home of all that has happened to us and, to paraphrase Eve Ensler, I was totally obsessed with my body but didn’t inhabit it at all.

Problematic, because I have a life now that most days I would actually like to feel. I also have a writing life that requires I be able to feel. Every morning, when I face the blank page, I discover anew a pressing reason to push through the shame and fear and find a way back to myself.

Bianca and I synthesized an amalgam of movement and writing exercises designed to facilitate a greater flow between body and intellect. This workshop was our first laboratory and it was electric. We left inspired, edified and dedicated to further exploring this fertile territory.

Writer and entrepreneur Rachel Resnick attended the workshop and wrote a wonderful piece about it. You can find more at her website, Writers on Fire. Thanks also to Rachel for the pictures. I didn’t actually snap any myself because for once in my life I wasn’t hiding behind a camera!

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T’s Fifth Cha Cha Day!

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Last year Tariku renamed his “Gotcha” Day (the anniversary of the day he was finally in our arms), “Cha Cha Day.” Which is obviously the most awesome name for any day. Woe to the mother who expresses enthusiasm for such a thing… This year the Cha Cha name was strictly verboten. But between you and me, I’m keeping it.

We threw him a small party, just a few friends and neighbors. We ate cake, moved the coffee table out of the way in the living room and danced to “What Does the Fox Say” like sixteen times. And we told the story of his adoption. A family fairy tale, woven through with sorrow but ultimately triumphant. I stole the denoument from psychologist and author Brenè Brown (with whom I’m obsessed):

You are imperfect. You are wired for struggle. You are worthy of love and belonging.

I always get reflective and nostalgic around his Cha Cha day. I wrote this poem early that morning. I suppose it is less for him, exactly, and more for the moms out there. He’d rather have a dance party than a poem at this point anyway. I thought I’d share it with you.

TO MY SON ON HIS CHA CHA DAY

Perhaps I know what other mothers do not.
Of necessity, I know that you were never
mine to begin
with that you are merely a loan
so precious that, Gollum–like, even though I have it in
hand it leaves me wracked with longing
like cherry blossom festivals or a great
song you hear at the coffee shop and can’t
rewind.

Perhaps I know too what other mothers
all know that you have always been mine
settling into my skin
long before there was even a seed
of you taking root miles from here.
These fingertips caught fire some nights for
reaching, the same that first touched your silk
cheek.

Out of nowhere you say:

I was only a baby when Jesus died on
the wooden cross. I think it was, yes
I know it was a
Tuesday. In March.
I was there.
It wasn’t my fault.

I have no idea where
you got ideas of fault
or wood
or belonging
or March
or Tuesday
or God at all.

I wake up to your vinegary breath, your hands
on my face, a
mastiff puppy’s paws, too big,
for your tectonically shifting frame
a missive from the future these
hands, that I cannot read
except to know it
ends with.
Love,

Somewhere on a red dirt road
flanked by corrugated tin lean-tos painted
blue/green like a sea that is
nowhere to be found, by waxy green leaves of false
banana trees and round huts the same color as the
ground, miles every day she walks in rubber
flip flops toward the well
and back again, red kerchief over her
braids, carrying a burden of
water, dreaming a shared
dream.

Beginnings

ski

ski3

Motherhood has given me a whole new reverence for being a beginner. Of course, our kids have to learn absolutely everything from scratch. Once again, I am forced to love in my son all that I have found frustrating and humiliating in myself for most of my life.

When I think about the failure and the falling inherent in being a beginner, a young girl appears to me. She is always about twelve-years-old, dressed in a tennis skirt and wearing French braids so merciless she can barely blink. She is as tightly strung as her tennis racquet. You suck, she says. What kind of serve is that? Your backhand is pitiful. You are an embarrassment. All those years of lessons and this is what you have to show for it? You might as well just quit.

There was a time I listened to that girl in the tennis skirt. Why try and fail?

But if I have learned anything in my adult life, it is that sometimes you have to trick yourself into taking yourself seriously, even if all the evidence is piled up against you. You have to get up in the morning, get out to the track, and hold yourself as if as if you’re an Olympic athlete, even if you’re struggling through 3 miles at a snail’s pace. If a stack of rejection letters and a battered ego is all you have to show for your writing life, you must still sit down every day as if you are Faulkner himself, and write your heart out. Beginning again and again is a noble fight.

I have been radically humbled and adrenalized these last few days, as I’ve begun to ski. T and I tagged along for some shows Scott is playing in Aspen (duh, of course we did) and I threw T straight into the “Powder Panda” ski school. He clung to me at first and acted like a little jerk to the instructor (who was a peach- thanks, Billy at Buttermilk Mountain!). By the time I showed up to check on him at lunchtime, he reluctantly tore himself away from his new friends and dismissed me with, “I’m doing great, okay. I love you. BYE, Mama!”

The extent of the outdoorsiness of my childhood was the ubiquitous scent of Pine Sol in our relentlessly climate-controlled house. I want my son to have a different connection with the mountains and ocean and sky that that. How can I ask him to do something I’m unwilling to do myself? So I got my cold tushie out there in the snow and took some lessons and fell on my face like a dork. By the end of our time in Aspen, T and I were bombing down the green trails together. I felt exhilarated and alive and proud of both of us.

I was a beginner, with laughter. And what I got in return was the view from the top of a snowy mountain. I got to shout a big WOOOHOOO when I made it down my first blue run. I got that blissful exhausted feeling of an earned dinner, a deep sleep and happily sore legs the next morning.

I want to etch this feeling into my body and take it with me into 2014.

As I mentioned in my last post, I don’t make resolutions. But if I did, I’d say I want to dance more.

Happy New Year! Happy beginnings, today and all days.

Bodies in Motion

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xmas2

xmas3

This holiday was more stressful than usual, for no particular reason. Sure there were work deadlines and money hemorrhages and family drama and too much food and too little sleep, but there always are. So why this year did I feel so shut down? Even my latkes sucked this year, and my latkes NEVER suck. I found myself curled in a ball on the upstairs couch more often than I would have liked.

When I begin to get overwhelmed and anxious, I react by trying to control the situation. I have multiple to-do lists, color coded, on different sized note pads and post-its. I’m sure if I get to the end of the to-do list, I will find…freedom. Aaahh. Spaciousness. Wide sky. I’m convinced that if I just throw myself with enough gusto into doing doing doing, I will round a corner one day and see the finish line. I will run through the ribbon with my arms held high in a victory pose and then (and only then) will I feel at peace.

I’m not sure why I persist in this delusion, when it has never once worked.

In service of this unrealistic goal. I employ generous measures of self-denial. The first form this denial takes is neglect of my physical self– rejection of my body and its needs. I don’t eat or I mindlessly eat too much. I don’t exercise, because I don’t have time. I don’t stretch and my old back injury acts up, so I take more and more ibuprofen and muscle relaxers and “power through.” The ibuprofen upsets my stomach, so I scarf antacids by the handful. I don’t sleep well because I can’t stop running through the list in my mind.

The plan the whole time is that, when I reach this mythical finish line, I will “take better care of myself.”

Perhaps you have such a plan. Perhaps you imagine the finish line is January 1, and you can abuse yourself in a method of your choosing until then, when things will finally change, like, forever after.

Except they won’t, and you know it. When I began to face the truth– that my resolutions almost always crumbled before January 15 rolled around– I stopped making them. Now, I try to see the New Year as a useful marking of time rather than a clean slate. Because I have come to believe there is no such thing.

My body is the scene of more that one crime in this lifetime. Crimes done to me and crimes I’ve committed against myself. I have legitimate reasons for wanting to shut it off at the slightest provocation. I resent my body and its annoying needs, its troublesome memories and emotions, its alarming register of the passing years. But I have learned time and time again that it is my only way back to feeling grounded and present in the world.

I went to an exercise class on Christmas Eve (dreaded because I had played truant for so long). I went for a long walk, when I had absolutely no time to do so. I began rolling out of bed into a yoga pose or two. Slowly, I started to feel a bit less like a walking to-do list and more like a human inhabitant of this earth.

So again, I go back to the beginning. I go back to my body. Not one day a year, but every day. Each morning, I must choose to say, Hello, Body! I know you, house of all I’ve witnessed and thought and experienced in this lifetime. I see you, you have carried me this far. I feel you, and you are not half bad.

xmas4

The Trouble With Happiness

lock bridge

shaakespeare

siene

On gratitude and guilt- the text of my latest post up at Huffington Post Women:

During my recent week in Paris, the mornings came quickly. I felt pressure to do something important with my limited time, as if there was a tick tock soundtrack to my days. I mostly didn’t listen. What I did: met friends for dinners and drinks and lunches and more drinks, saw the fantastic Surrealism exhibit at the Pompidou, bought a pair of boots and an orange glass ring; sat alone and ate a duck fois gras and fig tartine that might have been the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

I crossed the Seine one night on the Pont des Arts (laden with thousands of pad locks, inscribed with messages of love) while the full moon hung in a gauzy web of clouds above me, the water beneath shimmering under the amber streetlights. Gratitude broke over me like rain.

And then just as quickly, I felt guilty. How corny and sentimental– to stand on a bridge over the Seine in stupid too-expensive boots and feel lucky, feel happy. In an instant, I became a grotesque shadow version of the person I was not three seconds before. I had been feeling pleased with my sporting attempts at French, but suddenly felt foolish and embarrassed. I had felt aware of the delicious cold air on my face, but suddenly became aware only of my stumble on the cobblestones, my perpetual clumsiness.

Whenever I feel joy, I’m sure I’m going to be punished for it. How dare you be happy when you’re so far from your family? How dare you, when the bodies of typhoon victims line the streets of the Philippines? How dare you, when children are starving? How dare you, when your ancestors were herded onto railroad cars and then gassed and burned in Poland? How dare you be happy in this world of such enormous suffering?

I have a similar train of thought about my writing. How dare you take these hours to write? How dare you when your child needs you right now? How dare you when you are a clown compared to the brilliant writers that came before you? How dare you sit around writing about your silly life, in clunky and clichéd prose? How dare you when your house is a filthy disaster area? How dare you when you could be doing more important things for the world? And on and on.

I imagine that I am Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, during the scene in which she has just been coiffed and pampered and is skipping merrily around Oz, waiting for the wizard to grant her deepest desire. It is at just this moment, of course, that the witch appears, interrupting the giddy song by skywriting in black smoke:

Surrender Dorothy

For years, I read it as a call to Dorothy to surrender, but that is incorrect. That would be Surrender (comma) Dorothy. No, this is a call to the city itself to give up the cursed girl. But Oz doesn’t surrender Dorothy. Instead, Dorothy walks out herself to meet the witch.

I had lunch with a Buddhist expat friend of mine at a delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Marais, and we talked about my inability to experience joy without guilt. He spoke about developing a consciousness that allows you to observe the emotions as if they’re waves in the ocean, cresting and receding and then cresting again. Joy and guilt and despair and exhaustion and anxiety and curiosity and complacency and awe and longing and disgust and bliss. Again and again. Until you can watch them all and not attach so desperately, but rather see them for what they are: feelings — mutable, neither good nor bad, but human.

In the end, Paris did not surrender me, in spite of the old demons that flew around leaving trails of smoke in the soft grey sky. Instead, I kept my stupid-but-still-very-sassy boots firmly planted on its cobblestones, one foot after the other, as the waves of emotion rose and broke and rose again. And I found that the joy was there– somewhere in the lacy foam on the very crest of the wave, impossible to grab and even more impossible to keep, but there.

Fear of the Dark

dog hall

us halloween

The neighbors on our street all decorate for Halloween and hand out absurd amounts of candy to sugar-crazed zombie hoards. We always throw a big party and it’s a blast. We let Tariku pick the family costume theme and then I get crazy with the glue gun and next thing you know, we’ve created a mutual fantasy world into which we all can escape for one chaotic night. This year, we were an octopus, a mermaid and Neptune.

Our culture demands that mothers be perfectly wholesome, that children embody the very essence of angelic innocence. Any deviation will bring down the wrath of the haters, both online and on the playground. I love that Halloween offers us a chance to give a public voice to our darker side. Costumes are a great way of letting our fantasy or shadow selves, heroes or monsters, spiral outward into the world.

Tariku stands in front of the skeletons and ghosts hanging from the trees on our street and faces them down, saying, “I’m not afraid of you. You’re not real.” Which, of course, is both true and not true. The skeleton masks are just cheap, novelty store rubber, but the specter of death is looming over us all, just over our shoulder, all our lives.

I have always been afraid of the dark. As a child, I woke regularly from terrible nightmares, frozen with fear, imagining the darkness to be alive and swimming with menace.

This irrational terror lasted into my adulthood, until at one point a therapist suggested that I walk into dark rooms and then just stand there and lean into the feeling of fear, letting it move through me until it transformed into something new. It is embarrassing to admit that the first few times I tried it, I couldn’t do it. I would stand there rigid until a wave of fear washed over me and I ran from the room with my heart pounding. But slowly, with practice, I learned to stand quietly in the dark. Now, when I wake in the middle of the night, I sometimes intentionally walk through the house without turning on the light. My reward has been that I get to walk through patches of moonlight spilling onto my kitchen floor, that I get to experience the peace that can come from being alone in the velvety darkness.

To me, Halloween is symbolic of the potential for growth that lies in engaging with the shadow side of life rather than denying it. It’s a chance to bring your fears out into the light and dance with them, rather than running away.

It is also ridiculously fun to watch the kids explode with joy at the prospect of putting on a mask and having permission to eat a peanut butter cup or two.

I love it all. And I particularly love that Tariku thinks this octopus costume is “really, really scary.”

octopus 1

How Down?

hair

Scott and I have always loved the Albert Brooks movie Lost in America. In it, there is a scene in which Albert Brooks discovers Julie Hagerty gambling away the last of their nest egg in a Las Vegas casino:

She: We’re still down!
He: How down?
She: Down.

About a year ago, each night after putting T to sleep after yet another exhausting day, we would look at each other with stricken expressions.

Me: We’re still down.
Scott: How Down?
Me: Down.

During that difficult time, I often felt lonely. It seemed every other mother I knew was posting pictures on FB of the beautiful organic seasonal dinner party she just threw (to which I wasn’t invited), using some table linens her three perfect kids decorated themselves with stamps they carved from potatoes. No that their kids were at the dinner party. Because they were sleeping. SLEEPING!

I spent a lot of time crying in the car and feeling hopeless. Forget trying to get on the waiting list for a good kindergarten, I was starting to think about getting on a waiting list for a good rehab. I felt unequal to this task of motherhood. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful for all of my blessings, I genuinely was. It’s just that some of the time, I was also pretty disappointed by life.

Tariku’s school aide, until recently, was still going to class with him one day a week (mostly because I was used to hanging onto her like a life-preserver), but a couple of weeks ago she called me and said, “Look, this just isn’t necessary. He’s doing amazing. He really doesn’t need me anymore.”

Then yesterday we drove down to see a circus that should have been an hour away. We left an extra hour early but still wound up late, because we got off at the wrong exit, landed in the worst neighborhood of all time, and got caught behind a police barricade. True story. And do you know what? My son was the calmest, most content person in that car. It used to be that the slightest deviation from any plan would set off an epic tantrum. This time, he was just singing and playing with his transformers and occasionally asking random questions like: If this isn’t the Cretaceous period anymore then what period it it? I honestly have no idea what parents did before google. Did they have to actually be smarter than their kids?

Now that the crisis has abated, I’ve noticed that every one of the mothers I placed on a pedestal has, at some point in this year, been down.

How down?
Down.

I recently witnessed the mom that I consider the height of PTA-going, Martha-Stewart-crafting perfection nearly have a nervous collapse, when Tariku accidentally kicked a ball of paper mache in her garage (because it looked like a ball and not like a Halloween costume in-progress). No joke, I thought I was going to have to call 911. And later she was like, I’m sorry, I’m just stretched so thin.

Meaning, y’know, I’m down.

Maybe I was really never that isolated to begin with, it’s just that all I could see were differences and not similarities. Which is to say, I have been down before and will, I’m sure, be down again. But the next time it happens, I hope to remember not to look at everyone else’s potato stamps and see them as evidence of my aloneness at the center of the universe.

Get Up, Stand Up…

cute

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!