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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
We have been kicking around the idea of moving for years, dragging our feet. Then within a course of a month, KABAM, we have a new house and our old one is sold. It happened in a flash.
It has been a shock to my system. I’m all busted up about leaving. I’m not simply a touch teary and sentimental; I’m sitting on our front porch and sobbing.
I remember the first time we saw our little green house with the neat white trim, the golden afternoon light filtering through the camphor and jacaranda trees. It was love at first sight. We couldn’t believe our luck when we got it.
We waited for a child for two solid years in that house. We did not have the baby we so desperately wanted, but we did have our nest and I clung to it. I decorated his room with a zeal I don’t believe I will ever summon again for things like curtains. I spent some of the hardest days of my life in that house.
I was sitting at our weathered farm table when I finally got the call:
You have a beautiful eight-month-old son. His name is Tariku.
My neighbor was pregnant with twins at the time. We spent many afternoons together, drinking lemonade on her porch. Something deeply lazy and serene washed over us as we slowly adjusted to the idea of the sea change before us. Those twins are now Tariku’s closest buddies and we haven’t had a moment of serenity since.
As Scott and I prepared to go to Africa, I sat on the bright green carpet in Tariku’s room under the painted starry night sky, while I packed and plotted and planned. I tried out various nicknames. It was Tariku’s room. Terry’s room. T-Bone’s room. T’s room. I sat in the rocker for hours and looked at his photos and was able to trust, for just a moment, that it would be fine somehow. That he would come home to us after all. That the world was about to shatter into something entirely new.
For the last five years, I have started all of T’s bedtime stories:
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Tariku Moon, who lived in a little green house on Mount Royal Drive…
That era is ending now, never to return. Like the sweet sounds he used to make before he could form words. Like the smell of his baby head- some combination of powder and cookies and fairy dust- as he napped on my chest in the rocker. Like the small, shifting weight of him as I carried him around for hours in the Ergo, my little kangaroo.
We have been through so much here. I think I am partly grieving the couple Scott and I were when we moved into the house, with all of our hopefulness and naivetè, seven years worth of mistakes and missteps still ahead of us. It was a freer, wilder time. It would be dishonest of me to say that absolutely everything is better now that we finally have the child we always wanted. We are tired. There are crazy new lines on my face. I have to pack a lunch box every morning and, man, does that start out cute and get old quick. Still, when I step back and look at the home we made, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I realize how happy we have been, how lucky we are to be growing and moving on.
We bought a dynamite place in a snazzy-cute neighborhood, with lots of fantastic cafés, artisanal grilled cheese, overpriced denim and clever mustaches. There are also tons of families, beautiful park space and a terrific farmer’s market. Our new pad is light and bright and vibrant. I am sad to leave, but I am also thrilled about the sense of wide open possibility. We might just be buying bunk beds… Also, my new kitchen is SWEET.
We are leaving a home that we have loved and of which I am proud. Our happiness has been in these walls but it is not of these walls. We will take it with us when we go.
Onward, to the next adventure!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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.”
…graduated from pre-school. Yes, he did. If you’ve been following our journey at all, you’ll know that it’s a small miracle. I am so proud of him. What else can you say?
I’m starting to take this miracle thing in stride.
This morning, T was building this Lego Jeep:
He got really frustrated because it was too small for his Lego man. He broke it trying to shove him inside. Then he put it back together and then he broke it again. At this point, you can imagine that the Legos were starting to fly across the room. There was whining. Oh, was there whining. There were tears. There was the slamming of a fist on the table. There were multiple attempts (of varying tones) by me to suggest different, less frustrating activities. Like breakfast, for example. No dice.
Finally, I just walked away and folded laundry in the other room until the annoyingness abated. At which point, I poked my head back in the dining room and saw T completely engrossed, building this (which fits his Lego man just fine):
“You fixed the problem!” I exclaimed.
He looked up, smiling.
“I fixed it. AND this one is better because it has buttons.”
Apparently the orange buttons wash the Jeep and make it fly, and the red one shoots missiles. It is totally better than that other lame Jeep.
Somehow, my kid has the ability to work through frustration. I didn’t learn that skill until I was thirty and realized I would have been way less of a derelict if I had ever followed through on anything.
My impulse is always to head the tantrum off at the pass, to offer him other activities, to make everything okay (for him and for me). But he was right. He did just need to keep at it until he found a creative solution to the problem. I guess sometimes a Lego or two needs to get tossed at the wall in the process.
These pics were taken by T with my phone at his favorite work of art: Chris Burden’s Metropolis II at LACMA. We’ve been visiting it since he was about two years old and it still fascinates him. He discovers new things about the tiny city each time.
When he asked if he could take pictures, I was hesitant because I’m wary of all the time he spends staring at a screen. A museum visit is a good time to just be present and actually experience the real life around you. On the other hand, taking pictures is different than playing video games. It’s still hiding behind a piece of technology that mediates between you and the world, but there is a deeper and more conscious level of creative interaction involved.
As someone who loves to take pictures. it’s a question with which I’ve often struggled. How much am I hiding behind my camera? When I’m obsessively documenting a moment, am I sacrificing the actual emotional experience of that moment? But it was really interesting to watch him apply his own vision to this piece of art he loves so much. There is no way to capture the whole thing, it’s too big. So he was faced with issues of content and composition. What parts are most visually interesting? Most important to remember? How does he take Metropolis II and create something new? I think he did a great job!
We need to put our own frame around the events of our lives. I usually use words. I wonder what T’s chosen medium will be.
An adoptive mom friend of mine just got her first, “You’re not my real mom anyway!” from her son and it upset her. We haven’t heard it yet in our house, but I expect we will soon. The closest we’ve come was once, when Tariku was super-pissed at me, he said, “You’re a mean mommy! I want a different mommy!”
It was horrible- not for me, for him. He heard his own words and it registered on his face as absolute terror. Three seconds later, he threw his arms around my neck and said, “I love you so much, Mommy.” I felt desperately sad for him right then because I could sense that he was bargaining with me. I don’t think it was conscious- he knows at this point that we are his family forever. We talk about it all the time. He no longer consciously thinks that when one of us goes out of town we might not be coming back. But I do think that there is still a corner of his heart that feels unsafe; that believes if he behaves badly enough or says the wrong thing, he may turn around to find that we’re gone.
I told him that I knew he loved me and that I loved him more than anything in the world. I told him he could never say or do anything that would ever make me go away. I will say the same thing when he tells me one day that I’m not his real mom. I’m not worried about it.
I have an unusual perspective on the issue because I’m also an adoptee, and I can remember the day I said it to my own mother. I was four-years-old and my family had just been through a terrible trauma. The nursery was still decorated in shades of pink and white, diapers still in the linen closet, baby bottle still in the kitchen cupboard. My mother hadn’t had the heart to clear it all out and put it in the garage, even though it had been months since my parents had gone to the hospital to pick up my new baby sister and had come home empty handed because the birth mother had changed her mind at the last minute. I can’t remember how they explained it to me, but I do remember being incredibly angry. I, who had been a dream child until then (really- ask my mom), suddenly started acting out: talking back, fighting with other kids, carelessly hurting myself all the time. One day my mother asked me to do something and I refused, on grounds that she wasn’t my real mother anyway. I remember the moment like I remember few other things from that time. I was wearing my Kermit the frog jumpsuit, sitting on the piano bench, not looking her in the eye.
My mother was devastated. She wept. My father had a big talk with me about it later. I never said it again. In fact, I was awash in guilt about it for years. I can still conjure a shimmer of guilt around the edges of the memory if I think about it hard enough.
I guess I’m particularly unconcerned about hearing those words because I have been on the other end of them and I can tell you without a doubt that they were never true. It was never an issue; there was never a question. Even when I don’t particularly like or understand her, even when we don’t talk for long stretches, my mother- the mother who wanted me and adopted me and raised me- was then and will always be my real mother.
I offer you this, adoptive mommies: don’t sweat it. They don’t mean it. They’re stuck with you. For real.
Happy Mother’s Day, all you beautiful mommies!
This is my newly decorated living room. This is it. There is no couch. There is a rocking chair across the room, for exactly no one to sit in because the drums are so loud your ears would bleed. Jealous?
Why did I let this happen to my life, you ask? Did I hire my sixteen-year-old burnout nephew as a decorator and pay him in weed?
Let me tell you the saga of my couch.
Once upon a time, we had an expensive leather sofa bed from Restoration Hardware. Because I am a sensible gal, we got it off Craig’s List. When we took our truck to Venice Beach to pick it up, we found it weighed exactly 47,000 lbs.. While we were inside finding this out, we got a parking ticket. Then we had to go and hire two guys from the Home Depot parking lot to help us take it home and get it in the house. At this point, we may as well have bought a new couch.
I really enjoyed our expensive couch for exactly two months. We even had a house guest! A certain relative (hint: rhymes with shmother-in-shlaw) visited and slept on it and then proceeded to not be able to stand us for the following six years, but what the heck! At least we had a sofa bed.
One fine Saturday, the dogs ate the entire back of it.
Here they are, the little darlings. That is not the couch- that is the couch before the cursed couch. They ate that one, too. Do you want them?!? DM me.
But I am not easily thrown. I had it reupholstered by a very nice man who had to bring not one but three of his sons to move it.
I bought those weird plastic electrified shock mats to keep the dogs off it (go easy on the comments here PETA activists, at least I didn’t donate the dogs to science). But then I realized that we were living with plastic shock mats on our furniture and that is psychotic, so I took them off.
They ate it again. I had it reupholstered again. By this time, we may as well have bought a car. I put up dog doors to keep them out of the living room but those were such a pain that eventually we just started leaving a dog gate ON the couch, which made me not even want to look at the living room much less live in it.
They shoved the gate over and ate it again.
At which point, I was like: I FOUND THE PERFECT PLACE FOR THAT DRUM SET!
Magically, within one afternoon, the couch disappeared and my living room looked like this. It chafes a bit, but it has also been an instant party. The very night the cursed couch disappeared, there were four pre-schoolers rehearsing with their new band while I made dinner with ear plugs in. Je ne regrette rien. Fun is better than a couch any day.
I saw two videos of teenage boys in one week. The first is posted above, and consists of local news coverage of a heartwarming interaction between an uncommonly kind young basketball player and a teen with special needs. The second was the Steubenville rape case video, in which, for a stomach-turning twelve minutes, a high school student mocks the unconscious victim of a gang rape.
As the mother of a boy, I want to know: what makes the difference? How do you raise one instead of the other? How do you teach compassion while at the same time not pathologizing every little manifestation of aggression?
I’d really like an easy answer, some reassurance that the parents of those rapists and their reprehensible friends were monsters, absent, ignorant, abusive. My guess is that the truth lies in a more uncomfortably grey area than that.
This is not another species committing these crimes, these are our sons. It indicates a failure on so many levels- schools, parents, peers, communities. I think this Salon article makes an interesting point in exploring the efficacy of bystander education programs that target specific communities.
This country is pathetically puritanical when it comes to sex education in our schools. I realize it’s not a panacea, but education is a beginning, at least. It has the potential to give kids the correct language with which to discuss sexual assault. It opens up the dialogue, rather than couching it in silence and shame.
Having a boy who will one day be a teenager changes the experience of watching these horrors unfold in the media. One of my greatest (and hardest) gifts of motherhood is that is has connected me to the world in a more urgent way. How can we raise our boys to be kind, conscious, empathetic? I don’t have an answer, but I am deeply engaged with the question.
T-bone turned five yesterday. He triumphantly announced- I’ll never be four again. And then he said- Mommy, what’s wrong? Because of course I was sobbing all over the turkey sandwich I was making for his lunch.
I lost my mind and threw him a big bowling shindig this weekend (his idea), and it was actually fun and gratifying. It was the first birthday that he was conscious of what it meant that all of his friends showed up for him. He talked about it for days. Of course, the other side of the coin is that now he cares whether or not friends come to his parties, which is pretty much the root of all childhood pain. So here it all is- the delight and the vulnerability to heartbreak. It’s all happening, friends. He turned five. Five.
And three seconds ago, a heartbeat ago, a lifetime ago, on another continent, in some other dimension, this happened:
Of course, I think about his birth mother a lot around his birthday. As an adoptee, it took me a long time to realize why birthdays were such a complicated emotional mess for me. I try to be conscious of that complexity with T, try to be a little extra soft, a little extra patient. I don’t think I’m projecting when I sense some sadness in him. On the morning of his actual birthday, he hid under the couch pillows and didn’t want to talk about it. But, being T, he shook it off in favor of crazy dancing. Because if that kid has a talent for anything in this world, it is joy. I hope somewhere, somehow, his birth mother can feel the reverberation of that joy in her bones.
I recently went out for non-drinks with a pregnant writer friend, who is understandably concerned that motherhood will ruin her life.
Oh, it will, I told her. Everyone’s going to tell you to go see a movie alone or some stupid thing like that. As if balancing a popcorn bucket on your belly for a couple of hours is gonna make up for the fact that life as you know it is just about over.
She looked at me, shocked. Okay, so maybe I could have been a little gentler.
But seriously- I had just had a day, during which I drove from a school conference in Altadena to an occupational therapist in Encino then over to a child development specialist in Sierra Madre then to Trader Joe’s for some special fucking salami and crackers that we can’t possibly live without in this house for five seconds, even though the rest of the stuff we need is at FOUR different other stores. Then I made a stew that nobody liked and they both ate frozen pizzas. The end.
But you’re happier now, right? She continued.
Nope, not happier. I was happy when Scott and I went to Japan every ten minutes. I’m exaggerating for effect here- I’m sometimes happier. I’m also more worried, stressed, exhausted, annoyed, et al.
But I am certainly better. I am less selfish. I am stronger. And the world breaks open for me in surprising and transformative ways.
Of COURSE you’re happy spending your days shopping for Hello Kitty barrettes (for yourself) in Harajuku and then writing humorous little blogs for Vanity Fair while eating room service and overlooking snow-blanketed Tokyo from your hotel room. That’s easy.
But what I never would have expected, is that somewhere in between the school conference and the occupational therapist, I was listening to a great Shins song and the car was facing west toward the beach (sometimes it’s enough just to know the ocean is so close) and the afternoon light was buttery gorgeous and this enormous and surprising sense of joy cracked over me.
Because who knew that I ever was this person? That I can show up for my kid and seek help for him and advocate for his needs? I always thought I was selfish and depressed and narcissistic and barely functioning. I guess I still am on some days, but there are other facets to me that I never would have had a chance to see without my son. I prefer to be this person, even when she is less happy than my previous, more carefree incarnation.
And then there is the thing about the giant, heart-expanding, crazy-making, everything-they-ever-said-it-would-be love that comes with motherhood. Happiness is for wusses. I’ll take the love.
Here’s that Shins song I was talking about…. Also- the dog in the video looks just like my dogs!
An old, dear friend emailed yesterday to tell me that he and his wife are considering international adoption. He wanted to know if I had any advice. I began to write a short email back and a novel pretty much poured out of me. As I was writing, I looked at the date on the computer and realized that exactly four years before, Scott and I were on a plane to Ethiopia. I had been feeling emotional all day and couldn’t really pinpoint the cause, but I guess I was having a subconscious body memory of that earth-shaking time in my life.
The letter only begins to scratch the surface of some of our hard-earned wisdom about the international adoption process, but it’s a start. I thought I’d share it with you. Here it is..
I am so thrilled to hear you’re considering international adoption! I’m always a little bit jealous of people at the beginning of their adoption journey. You have such a transformative road ahead of you. I could never have predicted the myriad ways that adoption would blow my heart, my mind, indeed my whole world wide open. In fact, four years ago today, we were on a plane to Ethiopia to adopt Tariku. I still can’t believe my luck. I think back on the adventure and it seems like someone else’s amazing life.
It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint. And when it is over you will truly know yourself to be both fiercer and more tender than you ever could have expected. I think that the patience was the hardest lesson for me. I used to say that they should have given me a law degree as well as a baby, when the whole thing was over and done with. So at least you’re ahead on that score. Neither you nor Linda will be scared off by a little bit of confusing paperwork!
Okay, I have buckets of advice. It’s my favorite subject, after all. I’m not sure how far you’ve gotten in your research, so forgive me if I’m being too basic. I’ve been thinking about what the most important nuggets of wisdom I’ve gained are- what I most want to share with you as you head out the gate…
First of all- if you haven’t started your home study yet, start immediately. Today. It’s the first step in any adoption, domestic or international, and it’s done through the state so it can take a while. Don’t wait until you feel absolutely confident (you probably won’t) or have all the details sorted in your head, just start. I promise you’ll want to move faster than they do once it gets going.
Do you have any ideas of what country you’re interested in? It has changed so much since we adopted 4 years ago and I’m not sure about the various regulations. There are pros and cons to every place. I know that you have to go back to Ethiopia twice now (it was only once, when we did it) and that the wait is significantly longer. However, I can’t say enough about my experience with the country and its people. There is an incredibly attached and loving caregiving style with children in Ethiopia. I thought Scott was going to have a heart attack in the airport when every woman in sight kept coming over and hugging and kissing Tariku. It’s a wonderfully warm culture. All children who live for a time without parents suffer some sort of trauma; that’s just a fact. But I truly believe that the love and affection he received in the care center helped to facilitate the attachment process when he was finally in our arms. That was one of the primary reasons we chose Ethiopia. What I couldn’t have predicted was how the country would capture my heart. I can’t wait to go back there- we plan to as soon as T is old enough to handle the flight.
When looking for an international adoption agency, it’s important to talk to some people who have gone through an adoption with them, preferably in the country of your choice. I was very happy with Children’s Home Society and Family Services in St Paul. What you want to look for in an agency is a commitment to ethics and transparency and an involvement in the communities from which the kids are coming. When we were in Ethiopia, we had the opportunity to tour the hospital and school that Children’s Home Society sponsors in Addis. At the time I was just annoyed to have any time taken away from my getting to know T, but in retrospect it’s significant to me. The global and personal ramifications of international adoption are complex and it’s important to me to feel like I’m contributing toward a world where women aren’t forced to give up their children due to poverty, famine and disease. So you want to make sure that the adoption agency is on the same page. Of course there are all kinds of scary stories- and believe you me EVERYONE will feel the need to tell you one for some reason. But there’s no reason to be scared. Just do a little research (duh).
Which leads me to my next piece of advice- many well-intentioned people say assinine things about adoption. Like multiple times a day. You will gather a file of stock responses and it will become no big deal. Don’t let it throw you. The only people who have relevant advice are people who have gone through it. The nice thing about these people with experience in the matter is that a lot of them have blogs! Here are some of my favorite:
The most important thing I can recommend is to do some radical attachment parenting once you get your child home. This is true regardless of the age of the child. I have a friend who adopted a five year old and she kept that little girl less than six feet from her for six months. They ate with her, slept with her, bathed with her, eventually went to school with her. AND they have three other kids! And she is doing marvelously now. For us, we cocooned with Tariku for two months, then transitioned him slowly for another two. No one but Scott or I held him or nurtured him. We did a lot of just sitting around holding him to our bare chests. We slept with him and bathed with him and played endless peek a boo and other activities with a lot of eye contact. The only time I ever put him in a stroller was to go for a walk or a run. Otherwise I wore him in the Ergo carrier, which I think is the best carrier for heavier/older kids and for longer periods of time. Obviously you guys work a lot. But if at least one or the other of you can be with the child all the time in the very beginning, it will make a huge difference. There is plenty of more extensive advice about attachment and adoption, but this is the general idea. It’s definitely a huge commitment, but I can tell you that the initial attachment process with Tariku was the sweetest, best few months of my life.
Another thing- I think it’s important to introduce some specific rituals into the child’s life that honor his/her adoption in some way. We had a welcoming ceremony. The rabbi who officiated was a woman we met in Ethiopia, who also adopted a child from the same care center. So one of Tariku’s friends from Ethiopia was at his ceremony! It was so special. Another thing we do is celebrate his “gotcha” day ( I know- super dorky adoption-speak) as if it’s a second kind of birthday. I also light a candle with him for his birth mother the night before Mother’s Day. These are just the things I’ve integrated, there are countless ways people honor their children’s stories. It’s up to you to be creative about your family’s special language of ritual, because there is nothing pre-packaged that recognizes adoptive families in our culture.
Lastly, I think it’s very important that we as parents keep a regular, developmentally appropriate dialogue about adoption going with our kids. It shouldn’t be up to them to ask. I talk about adoption a lot, so it becomes really natural and comfortable (for both of us), and I give T the opportunity to ask questions or not. His interest level seems to go in phases, but I want the structure to already be in place when the questions start to get hard.
Okay, well, that’s a novel! And there’s more where that came from. You can always call me with any questions. I’m so thrilled for you. Adoption is hard and complicated and it’s completely amazing. I send you all our love and blessings as you embark!
An essay about my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is on The Rumpus today.
It took me a long time to write the essay. I started it twelve different ways and nothing I wrote seemed to express my experience with any degree of emotional truth. But sometimes when words aren’t enough, we have to write them anyway. Because silence isn’t the answer either.
Happy Hanukkah. It’s a holiday about bringing light into the year’s darkest days. I wish light and love to you all tonight.
How’s this for surreal (Dali’s got nothin’ on me)…
Two weeks ago I was trick-or-treating on our tree-lined street in sunny Los Angeles (dressed like a cave family with a pet triceratops):
Today I was freezing my tush off at the haunting, beautiful memorial at Plac Bohhaterow Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) in Krakow, the site where the Jews of the Krakow Ghetto were corralled before deportation to the concentration camps during the Second World War.
Krakow architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak created the memorial, comprised of 70 empty bronze chairs, representing the discarded possessions left behind after the liquidation of the ghetto.
I experience these things differently now, as a mother. I stood in the square and kept thinking of the mothers who hid their babies in their backpacks, in their suitcases. The mothers who were separated from their children. The mothers who stayed with their children and died with them. I could go on with the ghastly thoughts that nearly made me lose my borscht, but I won’t. I don’t think I need to- you parents out there are with me, I know you are. I said a prayer for the mothers who stood there before me under circumstances so horrific as to be unimaginable, and for the mothers in the world today still suffering similar atrocities. I went back to the hotel and wrote a letter to T. I do this sometimes, when I have something I really want to tell him that’s not developmentally appropriate. I keep the letters in a folder to give to him when the time seems right.
Tomorrow I’m taping an interview for a talk show called Rozmowy W Toku, talking about the Polish translation of my memoir. How amazing that I get to be here to experience this beautiful city that carries, among many other things, this terrible scar on the face of the world. How remarkable to stand and witness all the healing that’s grown up around it.
Stay tuned for more dispatches from Poland…