Permission

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I’m giving myself permission.

On Monday, I got up early, showered, ate a protein bar for breakfast, then escaped the city grid. The sky colored itself an achingly beautiful blue, the sun cast a soft glow on the slowly decaying landscape. I spotted several maples flashing flares of red. I drove an hour to what is known as the orchard region. Soon its quiet roads will clog with apple pickers and pumpkin, cider, and doughnut seekers. But on this day, it was still quiet except for the buzzing insects and bird calls and the crunch of gravel under tires.

I’d been invited to mountain bike on and around the orchard trails. We pedaled 22.5 miles along bumpy, unpredictable paths. I could have sailed forever through those sun-dappled tunnels of trees, along those fields rippling with corn and soybeans, the neat rows of fruit trees bursting with produce, the earthy woods and fields. I pumped my leg muscles until they ached to ascend the steep freeway overpasses and felt the flutter in my stomach on the high-speed rush of the descent into the woods.  Sweat trickled down my back. Wayward grasshoppers smacked my face. The sun baked my already browned skin.

It was wonderful. This day, this experience.

I felt freer than I’ve felt in years. This summer I started bike riding again after a long break. I found a bike at a garage sale. Found another for Girl from the East. Together her father and I taught her to ride. Now, all of us rolling along on wheels. It’s almost beyond description, the rush of wind in the face, the feeling of almost flying.

Amid the sensory rush, I felt a poke. It was guilt trying to ruin my day.

Guilt about being on a bike on a Monday when I could be home polishing my résumé, or taking an online refresher course, or over at Michigan Works! getting career counseling, or painting our peeling porch railings.

The hell with guilt. I flicked it off my arm like an errant bug and kept pedaling. Guilt didn’t belong on this glorious September day. In Michigan, a day like this in late summer/early fall is a precious gem. You do not waste it inside unless you have no choice.

I had a choice.

Why should I court guilt? I may not have worked full-time with a salary and benefits in five years, but I can assure you I’ve had no down time.

Here’s how it went. In 2004, my husband and I began the international adoption process, which signaled the start of two years of non-stop paperwork, turning inside out every detail of our lives for strangers to inspect, navigating inter-country bureaucracy, and unexpected stumbling blocks such as an angry ex-husband against the adoption and how it would affect our daughter.

Oh, there was stress.

Somewhere between then and 2006, I initiated a legal matter with my employer. Most of 2006 was embroiled in this legal matter. It was very stressful. So was the adoption. Then I was transferred to a branch office far, far away from home and moved to the night shift.

In August 2006 came our adoption referral. We began preparing for the arrival of a baby, for our trip to China.  We applied for travel visas. I prepared the final dossier with  the necessary papers for the formal adoption in China and the immigration process at the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou.

At the same time, I learned the outcome of my legal matter. The arbitrator had ruled against me.

In October 2006, I applied for and was denied family leave. Bone tired of the legal system at this point and ready to go to China and start the new chapter in my life, I resigned my position. My last day of work was mere days before our flight to Beijing.

When we came home as a family of four in November 2006, my husband resumed his crazy-busy life, Girl from the West went back to her seventh-grade school year. I, quite shockingly and suddenly, was home alone with a shell-shocked baby, ripped from the only world she knew.

It took several months for the two of us to emerge from the fog of our days and nights.

Last Wednesday my girl, who was absolutely ready to begin this part of her life,  started all-day kindergarten.

“What do I do now?” I asked a huddle of emotional mothers at the first day of school coffee and doughnut mixer at school. “Go home and clean?”

“Yes. For now. Go home and clean and rest,” said a tearful mom.

So I did. I cleaned. But I did not rest. I felt guilty. I had no sense of where to begin.

Then it hit me: This is the first time in years that I’ve not had something large looming overhead, some oppressive deadline, or a constant demand for my attention and services.

I realize I need some time to get my bearings.  I need to feel freedom rushing through me like the wind.

I need to taste boredom.

 

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The sweetest thing

During a much-needed mom’s night out with wine, food, and good conversation I learned that the A word and my Girl from the East came up with one of the families from our school.

Adoption arose as part of a much larger context, one encircling the areas of family resemblance, dominant traits, and individual uniqueness. It seems too complex for the preschool set, but now is the time when our children’s eyes open even wider to notice such things as tallness, blondeness, bigness, and differentness.

Specifically, the question of what makes boys different from girls, and how African-American kids in the class look different from the Caucasian kids led to how some families are tall and thin and some are short and wide and how some kids have two daddies or two mommies or some other defining trait.

“Like your friend, (Girl from the East),” the mother explained to my daughter’s playmate. “You’ve noticed she looks different from her mother. That’s because she’s adopted.”

“She doesn’t look different from her mom,” my daughter’s friend insisted.

“Well, yes, she was born in China. She is Chinese,” the mom continued.

“Noooo,” the young friend asserted, shaking her head. “She looks just like her mom.”

My heart warmed as I listened to this story.

That is the sweetest thing.

It never occurred to me that we could be regarded in that way, even if it is through the rose-colored lens of youth.

This is, of course, the portrait of our love for each other; we are blind to our differences. I think Girl from the East has my husband’s eyes and disposition. I know she has my penchant for perfection.  I don’t know where she ends and I begin.

When I look at my girl’s smooth cheeks, inky black eyes, and cupid’s bow mouth, I see our history reaching all the way back to that smoky, crowded government office in Nanchang, China, when I first accepted her slight form into my arms. Her long limbs, elegant fingers,  and thick, silky hair remind me of her birth family as none of us possess those traits.

It occurred to me that it has been years — years! — since anyone has asked any of us if we belong together. In the beginning, it was a constant affront.

And now, the court of opinion has grown to include  one very astute five-year-old.

That is the sweetest thing.

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World, please be kind

kind

It doesn’t happen often.

But, it happens.

It’s not going to stop.

Ever.

“Excuse me,” is how it begins. When I have a loaf of bread in hand, examining ingredients and calorie counts. When I’m loading my car in a windswept parking lot. When I’m at the community center watching my girl leap and jump and twirl.

“Would you mind telling me,” they ask:

a.) Is that little girl yours?

b.) Where did you get her?

c.) How long did it take? How much did it cost?”

Most of the time, the questions spill out of the mouths of well-meaning folks. Maybe they are considering adoption but haven’t done the research. Maybe they are in the process and want to compare notes or seek reassurance that their dreams soon will be realized. Maybe they never learned about boundaries.

Once upon a time I lived on the other side of the fence.

I remember when:

a.) The concept of adoption first slipped through a small opening in my wounded heart. Suddenly I saw adoptive families everywhere. I desperately wanted to know how that child became a part of that family.

b.) We were in the process and we would see a newly formed family so absorbed in their attachment process, that I couldn’t bear to pierce the bubble they’d built around themselves. Besides, at that point I knew where to go to ask questions and find families more than happy to share their journey.

c.) We were waiting for what felt like a century for our referral to come in. The longer the days and weeks stretched out, the more painful it became to see a happy adoptive family having dinner at a restaurant or shopping for school supplies at Target. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to approach these families and just be with them, hoping their good fortune would rub off on me. I wanted their assurances, support, and blessings. I never gave in to those urges.

Now, when I’m approached, I feel two things at once. I am both flattered and annoyed.

I’m flattered that our family story is of interest to others.

I’m annoyed that someone couldn’t find a more discreet way to satisfy his or her curiosity. (To be fair, many truly interested people have pulled me aside out of my daughter’s earshot or used less confrontational methods to convey their interest. In those cases I am more than happy to be accommodating.)

I understand what it means to be inquisitive for personal research, to have heartache for what I have, to have sincere curiosity. I try to answer questions quickly and refer people to the Internet or a local adoption agency. I remind myself that when we signed up for this, we knew we were stepping into a spotlight of sorts, that we would be perceived as spokespeople for this journey. I try to remember that my daughter is watching and listening to how I respond.

But sometimes people are just plain rude and cross the line of decency. It is no more acceptable to approach someone in a wheelchair and blurt, “Where’s your other leg?” then it is to act as if my child is invisible and ask, “How much did she cost?” as if she were sold in the bulk food aisle.

Please don’t reduce my child to a commodity.

Once, I asked a woman how much her biological children cost her, because after all, no child arrives without a price tag.

I wish it would stop. But it won’t.

We are conspicuous only to you. What we see is our beautiful child. What she sees is her loving family.

The world, however, has its eyes wide open. The world, without meaning to, will burst our bubble.

Last week my Girl from the East started her first year of preschool. No longer is she safely cocooned in our fuzzy, pink bubble of attachment, with her mother and father to deflect the world’s arrows and daggers. No longer is she sequestered in her Mandarin school with look-a-like families and abundant tolerance.

Now my girl will begin to tell her own story and see how the world receives it. Now we must build her strength and pride and keep it strong. Now we must fortify our own resolve for the eventual hard knocks that all children face.

World, please be kind to my girl.

Give me the strength and wisdom to do the right thing when the world doesn’t honor my wishes.

The invisible guest

flowergirl1

Today I cut some lilac blooms, filled a bud vase with water and tucked the fragrant blossoms inside. I placed the bouquet on the table set for a Mother’s Day lunch. The vase sits in silent tribute to the unknown, but very real guest at our table: my youngest daughter’s birth mother.

Although she is not visible to us and we do not know where to find her (or if she is alive), I have an idea of  what she looks like:

I see her when I run my fingers through my Girl from the East’s quirky, wiry hair that only grows in one direction. I see her when I look into my girl’s wide, ink-black eyes, watch her expressive brows bounce up and down as she talks, and hear her infectious giggle. I see her when I examine my girl’s distinctive ears. These ears are a physical feature that I am certain will help us track her birth family should we ever embark upon that quest.

Not from us, but from her birth parents, come her elegant pianist’s fingers, her nimble dancer’s legs. She is born of acrobats, gymnasts and athletes. Whatever her biological origins, no matter how humble, her lineage speaks of beauty, strength and grace.

I  love my girl more than life.  Most days I just see her. I don’t see the physical differences. It’s only when someone outside the family asks: Is she yours? Where did she come from? that my bubble is burst and I must face the birth mother, who’s always in the shadows.

Without question, I love my Girl from the East with the same fierce devotion as I love the child who grew inside me, my Girl from the West. I mourn the severed bond between my youngest girl and her birth mother. I cannot image holding a newborn and then watching her vanish from my life. I wonder: Does her birth mother think of her? Would she want a reunion? The simple answer would be: of course she does. But this is a conclusion based on my culture. My culture is not the birth mother’s culture.

I used to feel threatened when my girl so easily slipped into the arms of her pretty, young Mandarin teachers. I felt inadequate, feared that my girl noticed the differences between us and wanted the familiarity of a Chinese face, a voice that spoke in tones she knew before her birth. Today, I am grateful that she has so many Chinese-born women in her life.

I had the privilege recently  to meet a woman born of Chinese parents but raised by Caucasians. Later, she found her birth family. What I learned from this woman is that even though her Caucasian parents don’t look like her and couldn’t do much to teach her to be Chinese, they are bound by love. She is grateful to have a link to her past, but would not want a different life.

While it is difficult for us to do, we take time to acknowledge the woman who made it possible for Girl from the East to be a part of our lives. We recognize that this came about through a tragedy beyond her control. While my daughter brings infinite joy to our lives, she left behind a landscape of sorrow.

We know that in the coming years the birth parents, particularly the mother,  will take on an even stronger presence in our home. Our girl will ask pointed questions. We will find honest answers. There will be tears. We cannot hide these parental figures in the closet. They must have a place at the table, just like the bouquet of lilacs.

Yin and yang of motherhood

fun

Mary, who runs the whole operation over at the Mama Mary  Show tagged me on this one. It’s the brainchild of another blogger, Her Bad Mother,who is trying to fly this one around the globe. So, I’ll do my part and then pass it on.

Five things I love about motherhood:

  • The bond of love between mother and child (The privilege of being both a biological and adoptive mother makes me appreciate this one immensely. This connection is taken for granted with a child born to you. I had to earn it with Girl from the East, who came to me at 10-1/2 months of age.)
  • Built-in excuse to play like a child (Think: swings, slides, running through the sprinklers)
  • The awesome responsibility of leading by example and leaving a legacy
  • Holidays are so much more fun with children involved.
  • Getting a fresh take on the world around me through my child’s eyes
  • Five things I don’t love about motherhood:

  • Lack of sleep (I don’t call myself a MomZombie because I like movies about the undead.)
  • The stereotypical mom look: overgrown hair, baggy clothes, practical shoes (Despite my best efforts to fight it, often I’m too tired or busy to look my best.)
  • Pregnancy was an interesting experience, but it didn’t clean up after itself. (I’ll never wear a bikini again.)
  • The disconnect of parental bonding during the teenage years.
  • Expectations of perfection: There is so much pressure on mothers from society, from extended family, from the media, from ourselves to do it all perfectly every day.
  • Since I’ve only connected with two bloggers — who are also mothers — in other countries, I’ll tag them and get on with my day.

    In New Zealand: I Love Retro Things

    In Canada: Tanya at I Should Be Napping

    Oh, and by the way, I’m from the United States, specifically, the soon-to-be Third World State of Michigan.

    Family good; Godzilla bad

    godz

     I had a nightmare last night.

    In my dream, Godzilla is chasing Buddhist monks through the streets of Tokyo. Behind the city skyline is a mountain chain of books. Between the Godzilla-stomped city and book mountain is a vast expanse of paperwork and red tape. The valley is bustling with a throng of young Asian women collectively tearing through reams of paper and  tangles of ribbon in search of clues to their past. There may have been something about Thetans in there, too.

    Did I mention I watched “Religulous” last night before going to bed? Did I mention I attended two author visits/book signings back-to-back? Did I mention that I’m not getting any sleep lately? The fact that I got enough sleep to have a nightmare should make me happy. But I’m thinking my brain is in revolt.

    ————————-

    The first book event featured journalist and author Mei-Ling Hopgood, who is on tour promoting “Lucky Girl.”

    lucky

    Hopgood was adopted before the wave of  Chinese adoptions began in the  1990s.  Unlike today’s well-oiled machine that is the China Center for Adoption Affairs, in the early 1970s, China adoptions were handled quite differently. There remained a seed of hope that a birth family and child could trace each other one day. This is no longer the case.
    Hopgood’s story is unusual: Her birth family found her. She reunited with them in her early adulthood. “Lucky Girl” tells the story of that reunion and how she balances two sets of parents and siblings, one a half a world away. 
    As an adoptive mother of a China-born girl, I have on ongoing interest in adoption outcomes, particularly in cases where a child reunites with a birth parent. It’s nice to hear a happy outcome.

    The second event was a Q & A with Brad Warner,  member of the ODFx (Zero Defects) punk rock band (heydey in the early ’80s, play twice a year now), Japanese monster movie marketer, and Zen Buddhist teacher. Warner visited Detroit to promote his new book: “Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate.”
    (If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s taken from a popular commercial for yogurt.)

    zenchocolate

    I never know what to expect at author visits/book signings. I find my expectations can be pretty high. I’m there because I’m enamored with the author’s work or deeply interested in the subject. Sometimes I end up regretting the questions I ask. Almost always I say something inane to the person when its my turn to get my book signed. During Warner’s talk, I think I learned more about Godzilla movies, the somewhat futile attempt to resurrect Ultraman in the United States, and other monster movie stuff than I did about improving my meditation practice. But that’s OK; I’m still a fan.

    I walked away from both events with a head stuffed full of information. So many questions and ideas were pouring out of me onto the pavement I almost tripped. When I got home, I read a “Dora the Explorer” book about archeology to my 3-year-old girl. Then I watched a movie disparaging organized religion. 

    Either way, it was a batch of brownies added to a stomach already full of cake and cookies. 

    I think my brain threw up.

    Third time's the charm

    122508

    Christmas 2008

    This is Girl from the East’s third Christmas. She’s been alive for four observances, but in 2005 she was only a few weeks old and living in a land where Christmas is not celebrated.

    Sometimes I try to image what she looked like as a newborn. Sometimes I try to imagine what her first December must have been like, without a family cuddling and adoring her. I hope it wasn’t too cold where she lived. I hope she wasn’t too lonely. 

    Thankfully we arrived that following autumn and carried her home in loving arms all the way to her first birthday cake. Soon after we scooped heaping spoonfuls of food into her mouth on her first Thanksgiving, and then set her in Santa’s lap for her first real Christmas.  I think most of what she experienced on her first wave of holidays with us was overwhelming and incomprehensible.

     

    Christmas 2006

    Christmas 2006

    But it also awakened something inside. Slowly afterward she began to unfold like a spring bud responding to the sun’s warmth. By Valentine’s Day she was walking and babbling and becoming the roly-poly baby she was meant to be. Is there any better gift for her or for us?

     I have only one early picture of her, taken at two days old. The thumbnail-sized image is safely locked away and not for public consumption. It’s a grainy shot, taken quickly and from overhead, so that I barely recognize the girl she is today in that first image. 

    Much has changed over the course of three Christmases. This year she understood the simplest concepts of Christmas: the celebration of a birth; the giving and receiving of gifts; the decorating of a tree; and the pleasure of sharing the experience of a nuclear and extended family.

    This year was the real charm for her. While it was a simple holiday by past standards, her joy at the smallest touches: frosting on a cookie, silly ornaments on the tree, hugging her new Care Bear, made all the worries of the everyday world wash away.

    Tear jerker with happy ending

    Like most of us, I read a variety of blogs. Some I read for the pure beauty of the prose — even if I don’t have anything in common with the writer. Some are so well designed you just have to come in and spend some time admiring the wallpaper and furnishings.

    Others always guarantee a good laugh to chase the blues. And then there are those you stumble upon quite by accident. What you see stays with you for quite some time. This is what happened when I found this family’s blog.

    At first glance, it looks like a typical family blog with pictures of cute kids and trips to apple orchards. But this is a family blog with a message. You can read their message online or maybe you caught this morning on NBC’s Today Show. It’s available here if you missed it.

    This blog brought tears to my eyes for many reasons. Obviously I have a place in my heart for China adoption since I am part of the community. I firmly belive that the China Center for Adoption Affairs works magic when it matches babies in need of homes with waiting families.

    The other half of this family’s story is an unknown to me. It is every parents’ worst nightmare. I have no idea what they must have endured to get to where they are today. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I wish no other family would ever have to know such a thing.

    I’ll stop here. As much as I’d like to, it’s not my place to tell this family’s story. My take away: there really is healing after sorrow, hope after despair, and that no one ever should drink and drive.

    Oh, and don’t forget to hug your babies.

    Unforgettable day

    Two years ago today we awakened very early in China and rode a bus to the provincial civil affairs office. We were a bundle of nerves. I clutched a stuffed bear in my hands on the bumpy ride to keep me from wringing them excessively. Two years of waiting and wondering were about to end.

    Soon we would meet our Girl from the East, who’d been a plan, a hope and a dream for so long. Her picture was posted everywhere in our house. We looked at it constantly. Held it up to the light, tilted it, anything to reveal the unanswered questions: Who are you? What does your laugh sound like? Will you be happy with us? Will be know you when we meet you?

    And then it happened so fast.

    We are led into a crowded smoky room on an upper floor of a high-rise. A din of voices in Chinese and English, the squalling of babies, the oohs and aahs of parents-to-be and newly formed families, blend to become a high-pitch babble. It almost become too much. I feared I’d cry on this day. Instead, I retreat to a bench and sit with my head tucked between my knees, praying I don’t pass out.

    Then I hear our family name called out by our guide and a cluster of orphanage workers rush toward us with the tiniest living doll I’d ever seen. And then she is in our arms. Her eyes wide and her brows raised as if to ask: What’s all this about? 

    Two years later we are one as a family. We are so proud of both of our girls and the family we have created. Girl from the East proudly declares herself “a Chinese girl.”

    According to her we all are Chinese girls. On the inside, we clarify. We all are Chinese girls on the inside.

    Pieces of China

    Two years ago we were in Beijing and other parts of China, touring, soaking up culture and feeling like big, fat, pasty Westerners. We also were there to complete our family and make some kind of lasting connection. While we were taking away one of its daughters, we also left behind a part of ourselves.

    So it has been with great interest that we approached the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing. We root for the United States. We root for China. We can’t help it.

    In spite of all the charges of fireworks fakery and lip-syncing deception that have come out since the spectacular opening ceremony last week in Beijing, we’ve decided to hold onto the first breathtaking memory of watching it together.

    We admired its grand scale, feats of athletic prowess and incredibly creative interpretations of Chinese history through dance and art. So many times we stared at the TV and asked: “How did they do that?” Most of all, we loved watching our Girl from the East point with glee at the TV and shout “China! China!”

    Ultimately, she is too young to watch the games or gain anything through the special features. Her impression of China is firmly rooted in the bouquets of pyrotechnics coloring the night sky and the elaborately costumed characters.

    Our visit to China took us to many tourist attractions, but it also led us down streets not highlighted in any official network feature — which seem to want to put a high polish on everything to keep international relations warm and fuzzy.

    We walked away with many pieces of China. Some beautiful, some confusing, others haunting. You can’t walk through Tiananmen Square without thinking of the student protesters. You can’t walk among a sea of nearly homogenous people and not understand what it’s like to be a minority. You also can’t really know a place unless you’ve been there. Seeing the Great Wall on TV is no match for scaling its dizzying steps.

    We realize there are many pieces to the China puzzle. We don’t know if all of our impressions are accurate, or if we’ve passed them through our American filter too many times. Will the Olympic exposure help us and others better understand China? If nothing else, it has sparked many conversations and debates.

    We feel commited to learning the language, to studying the history and culture. We befriend Chinese people. Anything to hang onto that cultural thread, no matter how thin.
    Yet China remains far away and largely a mystery to us.

    Here is a picture sent to me by a shopkeeper I met in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. Once a year I receive Chinese New Year greetings from “Tiffanie.” With a population of 4 million people, Nanchang is considered a small town by China standards. This image was taken during the Chinese New Year; it more closely depicts the China we saw. This picture is nearly the polar opposite of the BBC image at the top of this post. Both are pieces of China.