Seedlings

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Each year I plant seedlings. 

I receive them in bright shiny envelopes printed with colorful images of abundant harvests, airbrushed and unreal.

The perfect tomato. A bushel of turnips with dark leafy greens. The shiniest cucumbers. The most luscious strawberries.

The tallest sunflowers.

The seed carrying its imprint, a centuries old heritage, an ancient genetic history that I know little of. Could these be the descendants of Friar Mendel’s sweat peas?

It begins even before they arrive, preparing the potting soil and disinfecting the little hot house, assembling their nursery. 

I start in the dark of winter. I plant the seeds. There is snow on the ground. We will enter into a dance of trial and error. I will try to gauge their need for dark and damp, moving them into the sunshine in time. I monitor their growth, how cold, how warm. Shifting things about and moving them around the house – from closet to windowsill, closer or further from the radiator depending on their need for heat, sun, water, cover, damp,  open air.

I make mistakes. I let them sit dry too long. Or I overwater. I  keep them covered beyond their time, too warm, too moist.

I plant two or three seeds per hole, and multiple small sprouts, delicate green fraternal twins, grow from the same spot. I’ve know you are supposed to pinch one off  – choose the strongest and divert the soil’s nurturance toward the one most likely to produce a harvest.

I never do this. I don’t want to be the one to choose.

It is nature’s prerogative, let her decide for herself.

Maybe I lose some plantings this way. But no matter how many I plant – some will grow and some will not.

And I talk to a friend, another mother,  who lives in the same space that I do: The past unchangeable. The future unknowable.  I tell her I am starting my garden and that I try not to think about what I will get to harvest or not.

And she says: “Even better. Just plant the seeds. Just that. Just plant the seeds.”

And the sprouts grow and the days get longer and the sun comes closer. I wait. Until the seedlings are strong enough to be viable. To sink down into the ground and stand through storms and wind.

To be exposed to predators and parasites.

I wait until their stems are strong enough, until the leaves are broad enough, until their roots deep enough to gather their own resources. (I’ll still water when its needed, and sprinkle chicken poo and compost around now and then)

I’ll determine that now is the time. That this is the moment that the growing season dictates. Time to survive the elements and move out into the agricultural wild.

To grow in rows.

To bear fruit, create seeds. 

To feed other living things.

Or to return their energies to the earth if they do not thrive.

And on a cool spring evening while my husband cooks dinner I will carry them all out into the crisp damp air out to the smell of mud and pollen.  To face the risks of freeze and flood. I will leave the seedling tray outside on the earth knowing I will transfer them later, soon,  maybe just a few more days.

But not quite yet. 

(Possibly too soon, or too late.)

To live an unprotected life.  

I leave them out in the last light of the sunset in the garden. And I head back to the house.

And I will know what happens next only when it happens.

Just planting seeds.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Artwork: The Dreamer, by Wonsook Kim


I was recently asked to share my story at the Korean American Story Gala, where they kindly honored me with their Trailblazer award. I didn’t respond to their kind invitation for almost two weeks – and spent most of that time planning to say “No thank you”  concerned about what it meant to be “honored” as a white adoptive mom, who is too often on the receiving end of “God Bless You’s”  from the Korean American community, that I have not earned.  I have come to understand these “bless yous” as the expression of the complicated feelings, the wound, around adoption that exists in the Korean community. I eventually decided to  accept the award, and  try to talk about what it means for me as a white adoptive parent, to try to bear witness to  the losses that the adoptee community and the Korean community contend with when they encounter each other – and to speak to  my responsibility and complicity in that. I sweated hard over this five minute speech, trying to walk a fine line of naming what I have seen, and knowing my place. 

Here it is:
Just before we traveled to Korea to adopt our son, I sent an email to the clerk of the small Quaker meeting in Seoul, to ask about their meeting times.

He wrote back and said that he would meet us at the airport.

And for the next 10 days we spent some part of each day with Bongsoo: He drove us to the DMZ, and the folk village, we went to museums and met his wife and children, we went to dinners together and to Quaker meeting. We had animated discussions about social justice, reunification and Western imperialism.

The night before David and became parents we met Bongsoo for dinner at the spinning restaurant on top of Seoul Tower. And he looked at David and me and he said, point blank:

“Why do you take a baby away from Korea? And why do you take Korea away from the children?”

I didn’t know if it was the revolving restaurant or Bongsoo’s question that made my head spin so violently.

But then I realized that his challenge was an invitation, not an insult.

So I looked at David, and then I took a deep breath, and I said to Bongsoo:

“I promise that we will do our best to answer your question in all honesty, but will also do the same for us? Can you tell us more about why you haven’t considered adoption and can you explain why you believe that there are so many Korean children adopted by foreigners?”

And we proceeded to have one of the most formative conversations of my life. It was not easy, it was full of hard and uncomfortable moments of challenge for all three of us, that undermined many of our perceptions about ourselves and each other.

And fortunately, it also forged a life long friendship between our households.

And afterwards I realized that it was an inherent part of my responsibility as an adoptive parent in an interracial Korean and American family to accept any invitation, no matter how challenging or uncomfortable, that would help me to better understand my children’s experience as Korean born Americans and as adoptees.

This invitation, issued on the eve before motherhood, made it clear to me just how pervasive, how unchallenged, and how oppressive the narratives of white adoptive parents are.

– and how the stories of white adoptive parents too often drown out adoptee voices, first family voices, and the voices of the birth nations and birth communities.

I decided to do whatever I could to listen, and learn, and maybe, if and when I was invited, to support adoptees and the Korean community in building a world where the voices and perspectives of Korean adoptees, – my children’s voices – would be valued and legitimized.

I received other transformative invitations over the years: When my 5 year old son invited me to create “an adoption class with only adopted people in it” I accepted the challenge– and extended it to a group of adoptees and adoptive parents – this invitation grew into All Together Now – and we constructed a space where adopted children define their own experiences, and adoptive parents listen and learn from adoptees.

Or several years after that, when Joy Lieberthal Rho asked me to meet her for lunch and invited me to help her to support Sejong Camp – and I became a part of Sejong Cultural Education. As a result I spend a week each summer at a Korean culture camp, where I am the only white person, and the only adoptive parent. Each summer I try to sit still and quiet and listen and wait for the campers and counselors invite me in: to soothe a child who is homesick for an adoptive mother, to offer support to a queer teen coming out to their Korean parents, to help an adopted adult find an effective way to confront their white parents about their experiences of anti-Asian racism…

But above all it means, as a white adoptive parent, that I must discern: 

  • When I have been invited to listen to stories that are not mine to tell or intrude upon.
  • And when I am not invited at all, and not only respecting that, but sometimes actively guarding the spaces from others who might intrude.

I do not always read these signals as precisely as I would like to: there have been many times when I’ve gotten excited about a project or a problem and Joy or Ben, or others have reminded me, with great kindness and patience, that I am a guest, in a sacred space that was constructed for others.

As my daughter and son now move into their adolescence, and claim their own space in the Korean Adoptee community, it is especially important for me to be still and move further back, and wait – to see if I am invited

Remembering that as an invited guest, the stay is both conditional and temporary.

And the best guests are the quiet ones, who clean up their own messes, and are sure not to overstay their welcome.

Thank you Korean American Story, for the invitation.

Safe House

The recent executive orders  regarding amnesty and immigration has turned so ugly, and fills me with grief and rage for the extraordinary men and women and children I have known who have lived in the U.S. without documentation. It  is perhaps the one of the darkest outcomes of this dark election.

I decided to share this small excerpt/draft from a larger non-fiction project I am working on – exploring  good and evil, memoir, and psychotherapy. 

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West Coast, April, 1978

14 years old

I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a man – a white man with blue eyes and a black beard – standing next to my bed. In the pitch black. His eyes lit by the reflection of the street light shining  through my bedroom window, the one that stood at the corner of our backyard of tall weeds. I screamed so loudly that the sound of my own voice  terrified me even more and I screamed louder still as I flew down the hallway toward my mother’s room. “A MAN!!!!! A MAN!” My mother and brothers raced toward my room as I ran in the opposite direction. Away. 

Father took off down the stairs to the back basement to make sure everyone was in place and accounted for

A few weeks earlier Father and his twin brother, Hugh,  had spent an entire weekend building me a waterbed for my fourteenth birthday. They had laughed together, measured twice and cut once – Father sweating through his blue chambray shirt – Hugh in a dirty white v-necked tee-shirt with his boney chest poking out. Hugh had come to live with us  a few months earlier, taking over the extra room in the front basement.  He was a smaller, uglier, alcoholic version of Father.  He and Father had begun building things together in the afternoons – built a deck for the second floor living room and installed sliding glass doors where there had just been small windows.  All of Hugh’s clothes seemed too big for him all the time. Maybe he was losing weight? He slept late and drank all night in his room, and dragged a large garbage bag full of empty vodka bottles out to the curb two or three times a week.

There was no evidence that anyone had been in my room at all. The doors and windows were all secured. The house was searched. Everyone was in their proper place.  Father’s verdict: Just a nightmare. Or me trying to get attention again. (The nightmares, gone for a while, had come back and I’d taken to  sleeping on my younger brothers floor two or three times a week to just to hear someone breathing in the same room.)

No good reason at all for me to have terrorized the whole house by screaming at the top of my lungs in the middle of the night.

It was the others in the back basement – the ones who came and went only  for short stays, who were passing through, who had escaped from the strawberry fields mid-season – who weren’t “regulars” so we mostly didn’t learn all their names but recognized by sight as they snuck down the side fence through the tall grass to the hidden side entrance. Usually we paid no attention and were used to the comings and goings of quiet strangers in and out of the basement. But Oscar and Eddie – had lived with us since the beginning. 

None of them had work papers or green cards or visas. All of them had crossed the US/Mexico border illegally.

We met Oscar almost as soon as we arrived in California. Father, who was by now completely suspended from the pulpit, wanted to start his own business. He spent a few months trying to make fiberglass boats in a SOME warehouse. (It was the  first of many get-rich-quick schemes: a “Pyramid Power” sleep aid that people were supposed to stick their  pillow and head in at night.  The Paperbacks Only Book Bus – a retrofitted bus filled with book racks and books for sale that immediately ran afoul of all local zoning laws. “Guano Gusano”-  bags of earthworm shit sold as fertilizer with a creepy smiling worm in a sombrero as its logo.)

Father came home from the boat warehouse one night with Oscar. Maybe he was sixteen or  seventeen years old – I didn’t know really, to me he was just old enough to be generally categorized as “grown up.” A shy, pretty boy with a curly mop of hair-  we couldn’t communicate with him since at first we had no Spanish and he had no English – but Father knew Latin so he could understand him well enough.

He’d been sleeping outside behind the industrial park, and was in the US to earn money and send it home to his parents and siblings who were very poor, almost starving. He was sick with fever, no where to go, no access to medical care. 

What about the “back basement” Father wondered,  behind the garage, behind the spare bedroom and the rec room –  that large basement crawl space next to the unused garage with its practically hidden side door? A dirt floor sloped steeply upwards where the house was cut into the hill. A cot with a bedroll. A lightbulb or two. Some fans in the summer heat. A few blankets in the damp California winter. An outlet in the garage with a long  orange indoor/outdoor extension chord to power the small TV tuned by coat hanger antenna to the Spanish station at the lowest volume.

From that day on, Oscar lived “with” us, in the dark, dirt room. Sometimes he would have to hide  in a small shed which also served as an outhouse with a medical supply commode inside – entirely hidden in the unbelievably tall blind of weeds growing in our completely feral  backyard. The neighbors complained bitterly that our yard was a nuisance, a fire hazard, a home for pests –  but they would have hated us even more if they had known the realities it was actually hiding. 

Oscar brought friends –  Eddie came the next year –  and their friends and co-workers who needed long term or temporary shelter, or emergency support, the others who we never knew. We shared Mom and Father’s old clothes, used sheets and blankets, and school books – whatever we had to spare that could be of use or sold or circulated. When we had leftovers from dinner I brought  them down.  No hotplates permitted.

We had a big Spanish English dictionary that we used when we needed to communicate something from upstairs to down, or from downstairs to up: Comida.  Frio. Calor. Agua. Gato. Perro. Papel hygeinco. Bombilla.
“We are put here to feed, clothe, house the poor.” Father would say. “And to make sure they have proper medical care…”

“Medical care? You mean they can’t go to the hospital ?”

“They could  be deported if they did.  I was a medic in the Korean War, remember? So we needn’t take that risk if we can address it ourselves.”

He took his large, metal military looking medical kit downstairs to the back basement once a week and would close the basement door and  stay down there for an hour or so. Once he gave Oscar some strong brown alcohol and put stitches in Oscar’s foot when he stepped on a piece of glass that cut right through his flimsy, worn sneakers. He took everyone’s  temperatures and kept them hydrated when they all got the barfing flu. He put cold towels on Eddie’s forehead and chest when he had a fever that went up over 104, and tylenol every two hours until the fever broke.

 I was down in the rec room watching TV with Oscar when  he suddenly reached for the big dictionary and whispered, his eyes big, his tone grave:  “I. love. you.”

“Como?” I said.
“I love you.” Oscar repeated with a flicker of fear in his eyes. He handed me the dictionary.

I didn’t take it. “No lo entiendo? Um…  Buenos noches!  See you mañana!” and I marched quickly back to the upstairs.

Oscar was almost an adult. I was thirteen-  I didn’t know what was going on, only that it felt like the glimpse of a terrifying secret – and I was certain  that he already knew that those words translated to:  Te amo.  Te quiero. Te adoro. I knew that even though I hadn’t ever had Spanish in school yet.  Unsettled for the rest of the night, I finally told Mom what happened just before bed and Father went down to talk in the basement.

After about  twenty minutes or he came back upstairs:

 “Oscar told me that when he was getting dinner earlier, the woman  st the register and looked him over and said ‘I loove you!'”  Here Father dropped his voice into a cartoon girly seductive whisper, flared his nostrils, flipped imaginary hair off his shoulders and made kissy lips. Father and Mom both started laughing at his show.
“She said ‘Who are you? I luuuv  you…’” now with even more mincing and lisping and  a flappy wrist just like when Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye acted silly and dressed up in lady’s clothes. 

“…so Oscar just wanted to know what it meant. That’s what he was asking. It was just all just a big misunderstanding… So its good we cleared that all up!” he brushed imaginary dirt briskly from his hands. 

  knew Oscar  to be kind, his eyes always soft and protective when he was around us kids.  We all watched afternoon TV together after school in the rec room  – with Oscar mediating  our sibling bickering about what channel to watch with patience and fairness.

We’d spend afternoons together so  Oscar’s English could get better – and we could learn some Spanish. “How to you say ‘palm tree’ in Spanish Oscar?”  we’d ask, pointing at one out the window.

“Oh, muy difficile!” He’d answer deadpan:

Palma.” and then roll his eyes and shake his head at us  making us all laugh.

I was in charge of my brothers  at home at night when Mom and Father went out on dates – whenever we asked where they were  going  Father would only answer: “Out. Away from children. Out.”-  I felt safer knowing Oscar and Eddie were downstairs, just a scream away if  some bad guy came and I needed help.

I didn’t think that Oscar was in love with me. But I didn’t think he was trying to tell me the silly story Father reported either. I didn’t know what Oscar was asking but wasn’t about  love. It was about something more frightening that that.

The mystery remained unsolved with the fresh scoop of  danger that came with each new day. 

When we had friends over  they would sometimes see Oscar or Eddie or one of the others coming home along the fence: “No trabajo aqui!! NO TRABAJO!”  they would yell as their parents had taught them to when Mexican speaking laborers came to their front doors seeking yard work.
“No, no its okay. I think Father asked him to fix something in the garage – our lawn mower is broken or something…”  I’d say pointing the the seven foot tall wall of weeds behind the house.

We never permitted anyone to use  any of the  bad names for Mexican people in our presence –  which caused battles with white friends  at school . But we could never ever tell anyone why we fought so hard either, or about the people  who lived in the basement because Mom and Father explained that we were  committing a federal crime for “harboring illegal aliens” and they could be sent to prison if we said a word about it to anyone at all.

It had to be an absolute secret.

At night we all froze in place and hoped everyone was inside and away from the small cellar windows whenever the INS choppers circled overhead shining spotlights in everyone’s yards and in our bedroom windows. “INMIGRACIÓN! INMIGRACIÒN!”  blared from the helicopter’s loudspeakers, trying to flush frightened human beings out of hiding in order to capture them, like hunters did with game.

There were close calls. The time that Oscar got pulled over after borrowing Mom’s moped. His fake ID somehow passed inspection, but the officer wanted to confirm that the bike was borrowed and not stolen, and escorted Oscar back to the house. Mom turned white as a ghost and Father told us to stay inside and to tell whoever was home in the basement to be absolutely still and for none of us to speak a word.  He went out onto the front patio with a relaxed smile,  his hand extended for a handshake. 

“Hello!” he said, introducing himself using his Reverend title. 

“Can I help you officer?” Father calmly, glibly assured him that everything was just fine officer,  his hand on the police man’s shoulder like they were old friends posing for a class reunion photograph.
“Well, no,” he said chuckling,  “certainly no crime committed at all.  Oscar and his whole family are my parishioners! We’ve known them since he was a just little boy, and watched him grow up! We lent him the moped to go visit his grandmother in the hospital. He spoke loudly  like Oscar was hard of hearing, like the white people around us usually spoke to Mexicans and Mexican Americans. “How is she Oscar? Beuno? Getting discharged soon I hope?”  

My brothers and I lay on our bellies and peered at the scene from under the full length curtains my mother had closed in front of the sliding glass door  before she stepped out. I held my breath, waiting to see them all carted away in handcuffs, silently making  a plan about what we would do, whose house we would go to until we could reach Dad and he would fly us to live with him forever while Mom and  Father served their time in federal penitentiary.

I believed we were practicing liberation theology, living out Christ’s radical Gospel, to serve the least among us, to minister to the poor, to see the face of Christ in every human being.  We might be brave but that didn’t matter compared to the bravery we were supporting. This was the very least we could do, and it was still not enough.  Mom and Father said this is why the “hobos” had marked the my Grandmother’s stoop- because she would always give them a warm meal and an old quilt and few nights stay in the barn. This is what “good” Germans should have done for the Jews.  This is what only a few good white people did during slavery times and the Underground railroad. This was having the courage of our convictions. This is what Christ calls us to do. We must disobey all laws that go against God’s laws. We must  be willing to lose everything, as Christ did on the cross.

We went to lots of protests as a family, and because we were the only kids ever there  they took lots of pictures of us. I got my photo in the San Diego paper holding a sign that read “I’m not going and neither is my brother!” when we went to a demonstration against registering 18 year olds for the draft. I got credit even though the words were Father’s idea.  We marched in ecumenical solidarity with the religious leaders of our town when the synagogue got spray painted with bad words. Father wore his collar even though he didn’t have a pulpit anymore.  We marched in support of free speech when the Christian  fundamentalist mayor tried to close down the one adult book shop in town, with the gay bar in the back. We gathered there again and lit candles with a small crowd of men from the community the day that Harvey Milk was shot dead.

Standing up for what what right was important. But caring for the poor was Christ’s most elemental ministry.

And the one day  Oscar went missing –  we hadn’t seen or heard from him at all for over two weeks. Had he been injured? Was he lost? Sick? Deported? Early in the morning, over our breakfast cereal before school – Father told us that he had received a call late the night before from a coyote, a man who helped  move people across the borders without getting caught. He said Oscar was captured  by immigration and was in a cell in Tijuana.  The coyote said that if we wanted Oscar to come back home we were to put $1,000 in cash in a paper bag left at a special drop off spot at a certain time. Father said he was going to the drop off spot late in the evening – and we had to make sure everyone was out of the basement and that they brought all the bedrolls and personal items went with them –  just in case it was a trap set by the INS to capture Eddie and the others and arrest Mom and Father. If he didn’t come back by a certain time – we were to make sure none of them ever came back because our safe house wouldn’t be safe any more.

For any of us.

Father did return on time but with someone who was completely unrecognizable to me. Oscar’s face was blackend and  bloody,  his whole face swollen beyond anything I could comprehend. His eyes  swollen closed and so tight they looked like the creases of two ripe purple plums. He had huge bruises and lacerations on his face, and torso. His foot was so swollen he couldn’t tie his shoe, a possible fracture. He looked to me like he had been stomped to pieces.  I had never seen anyone so harmed, so wounded, so broken except for paintings of Christ on the cross. 

He went in and out of consciousness for several days. He had a terrible concussion – was confused, disoriented, dehydrated. Father and Mom checked in on him, waking him hourly in shifts. 

When he was strong enough to stand and talk and eat he came upstairs (only after we had drawn all the curtains and shut the window and locked the doors, the standard “coming upstairs” protocol).

My Spanish had improved by then, Father had his Latin, Mom could now understand some  and by now Oscar had more English words too. We sat around the dining room table while Oscar ate some broth:

“Can you tell me what we did wrong? Was there something we did that angered the coyote?” Father asked.

“No.” Oscar responded. “Not the coyote. Inmigración…. Inmigración.”

It took us all time to take it in: US Immigration officers had done this. Had beaten a skinny, shy adolescent boy nearly to the point of death.

“Its not Constitutional!! We have to do something! We have to get them arrested or fired! ” I said.

Father turned to me: “He isn’t a US citizen. He has no constitutional rights. They can do whatever they want to him. He’s not even going to end up in a U.S. jail once INS has him so when they dump him across the border there is no record or recourse at all.”

The reality cracked open my fourteen year old brain: Oscar and Eddie and the others who came and went and smiled and thanked us and hid in the weeds – had no human rights at all. None. No protections. The men who had done this to them were capable of extraordinary hatred, like the Klu Klux Klan, but were government employees and there could be no recourse. None at all. 

Father reminded me that sometimes even U.S. citizens, and people born here had been deprived of their rights  and subjected to violence- like slavery, or the Jim Crow South or like the Japanese Americans during World War II, or the way that Native Americans were forced to live on reservations.
I understood, finally, what unfathomable danger these men and women lived with, what courage they had to call forth in order to send money to support their families at home. I knew they lived secret lives of legal non-existence, of hiding, of lack of access to basic services to make sure their parents and siblings could survive. For the first time O understood that the people in the basement could be killed, their bodies disposed of, and that no one would ever know. I was flooded with how lucky we were to have Oscar back, to know what happened to him – that he could be erased, annihilated and we would never even know what had happened.

I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance at school after that. I got sent to the principal’s office repeatedly for weeks. I didn’t care. They couldn’t make me. They could call my Mom. They could call Father.  I would never again pledge allegiance to a country capable of this. 

Father would remind me: “Martha, basic human rights, your own and others are are something you must always be prepared to fight for. They can be taken away in the blink of an eye.”

God called us to this.  This is what it meant to be faithful. To do unto others. It meant risking everything for justice for everyone. 

There was only one part of the pledge I would recite silently in my head, my hands at my sides, my lips still, a private prayer not a public declaration of loyalty:
 “With liberty and justice for all.”

On Leaving Gladstone’s Library

 

 

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How do I write about writing without talking about what I am writing about?

I don’t mean to be cryptic, I don’t mean to build suspense or be tantalizing – because the final product, if there ever is one, will a long way off.

So don’t hold your breath.

So there isn’t any point in my being coy – but I do need to find ways to skirt around the subject of my writing in order to talk about the process, and to acknowledge the incredible gift that has been given to me in the form of a two week stay at an extraordinary residential library in Hawarden, Wales: The Gladstone Library.

I came to be here through the kindness of someone who once would have been called a stranger, before the days of social media – and now is called an “online friend.”  Someone I have never met but know and trust through Twitter. We both like birds, and mud, and walking and occasionally capitalizing words not to holler but for EMPHASIS.

Melissa has done kindnesses for me before: I don’t remember how we first crossed paths. She read some blog posts. She said kind things about them. She revealed that she was a novelist. She encouraged me to write a book. She arranged for her literary agency to confer with me – and they offered kind and helpful guidance.

I’ve only done one small thing for her: As she worked on her second, lovely novel and hit a snag she contacted me through Subtext Consultations – and we pretty quickly worked our way through it – sorting through the complex relationship dynamics of the mother and her adult son depicted in her story.

And then 2015 happened, which for me turned out to be a year of caretaking, fear and loss as my dependent mother, and Ellie, a beloved friend, both died after long and challenging cancer treatments. And in the middle of it all, after one death and before the next: Melissa sends another gift:

“Out of the blue, but – could you use two weeks in a beautiful residential library in the UK in 2016 to work on your book? Let me know – scholarships are available and I’ve just put you forward to the Warden, who is really keen. It’s the most wonderful inspiring place have a look here: gladstoneslibrary.org

Hmm. Let me think a minute – if after a year of exhaustion and doctors and drains and surgeons and ports and home care and death, could I use two weeks to myself to work in a beautiful residential library to work on some imaginary book about what I don’t yet know?  And keen. She used the word keen which American’s never use but which is so totally adorable: OF COURSE. OH MY GOD ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW?  YOU ARE KIDDING ME. THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

I riffle through their gorgeous and comprehensive theological collection by way of the online catalogue and see photos of the stunning reading room, and immediately write the Warden, Peter Francis, (an exceedingly kind man) – and even though I can’t tell him a single thing about what kind of book I might write, or even if I can, I only promise him that I will make my stay of use, to myself and to others. That is a commitment I can make. And I receive word from the library a few weeks later and they say:

Yes. Come.

I tell Ellie, who is still with us, and she is thrilled and supportive: She spends long weekends at our home, and we talk late into the night, after everyone is asleep about our hopes, our pasts, our fears and our sorrows – I start to tell her stories that I can only tell now that my mother has died. I wasn’t aware, while my mother lived, of any story that I wanted to tell but was prevented from telling – but in the months after her death it is suddenly clear that there are stories that did not and could not exist at all, questions that could not even become questions while either of my parents were still alive. And now, that they were both no longer here, those questions could be formulated, and mysteries could rise up, and searches could be initiated, clues could be pondered, and theories, conjecture, and intuition could assert themselves. I had inherited the seat of narrative responsibility and suddenly I had a legacy filled with obfuscation and mystery to make sense of. And Ellie understands this before I do even. And says so: “Here is start of your book Unnie! You’ll do your ‘Shrink Thinks’ stuff to it, make it all pretty and wise – I mean you’ve gotta have clients who deal with shit like this, right? Or maybe its too personal?”

No, I think this is it. This is a nonsense story in my life that I have to make meaningful now that I own it, and that is the work that every client I have ever seen is undertaking in some form. How to take apparent meaninglessness and exract meaning from it.

And I go back to Gladstone’s on-line card catalogue and I realize that yes, actually, there are questions embedded in these events that are not psychological questions, but are, in fact, theological questions: Questions about psychopathy and deceit and sin and encounters with  psychological evil and surviving and healing and resurrecting yourself from it. Questions about the purpose of having empathy for those who can feel none and self-preservation and exorcising demons, and forgiveness and acceptance and the limits of compassion. And the fact that this collection now exists as a resource for me is felt, along with Ellie’s enthusiasm and encouragement, to be confirmation that this is the work that I am now calling “a larger writing project” because it may never be anything other than a large pdf, so I still dare not say “book” because it really still feels just too audacious.

And days go by and we lose and memorialize and grieve Ellie but I hear her supportive voice speaking inside of me every night just before sleep. And months pass and the day comes when I arrive at the library.

It’s beauty is relieving the moment I pull into the carpark and look out the window of my room.

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I spend the first few days in my cozy room and in the comfortably appointed lounge, reading about psychopathy/sociopathy. I am saving the reading room, I am saving the stacks, until I have made it through the heavy, dark, ugly part of this work. My routine emerges: Wake at 7:30. Breakfast at 8:30. Begin reading at 9:00. A half hour for lunch, and a little chat with the other guest – all here to study or read or research, many of them clergy but not exclusively so – all gathered to sit and read and sleep quietly near each other to concentrate on something too complex to tackle surrounded by the distractions of  daily life. Some are here for a day or two. Some for weeks, some for months.

My routine emerges. I wake at 7:30 to read, take notes, and write. I take a half hour break for lunch. At 4:30 I have a quick cup of tea, and head out to walk through the park, and to search for walking trails through the woods and meadows and farmlands. I look for birds – pheasant, partridge, English robins,  songbirds I don’t recognize, owls and hawks that I never see on walks in the US. I regret not bringing my binoculars.

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I come home and rest for whatever time remains before dinner. I have a glass of wine in the lounge after dinner, and chat for a brief bit – and then head back to the reading room until 10.

Meals are simple, delicious and nutritious and on site. I skip dessert. I have a box of biscuits in my room when I need a bite.

The reading room is beautiful, quiet, a space as gathered as a Quaker meeting. Each person sitting in focused silence, going in deep, deep into challenging content, alone together. There are desks set in privacy, between bookshelves, around the second floor gallery and large comfortable leather club chairs for those who prefer to curl up. Each person is   facing down a blank screen, or taking notes on a text pulled from the archives, or staring out the window wondering, contemplating, reflecting on a literary or academic or spiritual dilemma.

 

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And I wrestle simultaneously with trying to fill in holes and follow up clues from a family mystery, while searching for a through-line for this book, and wanting to find some way for this not to be a pitiful or confessional story, but a story that I have made meaningful for myself and I am not sure that I can. What if owning and surfacing this story and chewing on the psychological and theological conundrums that live within it is only enraging, or heartbreaking, or boring, or purposeless, for me and for others. What if I can’t pull this one through? I resolve that that may be more than enough, and I can keep whatever I produce tucked in a drawer and it will be worth it because it will have filled in some hidden and obfuscated parts of my own history.

But, near the end of my second week, I find the key:  I read a phrase that  triggers a memory of the first time I heard the expression. Some quick investigation shows me that this phrase, and what I understood of it as a child and what it actually means, is the pathway toward both a personal liberation from a pitted and contentious internal conflict, but also the construct that allows this “longer piece” to have a through-line that reflects my values, and my wish to write about how we find might find  meaning in meaningless events, how we are sometimes able to turn sows ears into silk purses.

And it emerges as a certainty. And this key, this theological construct – something I have sought in the psychological literature but never truly found – except perhaps peripherally in Jungian discussion of the transcendent function and alchemy (but I am not such a Jungian so I just briefly scan the densest alchemical texts and the numerology makes me sleepy). And I carry and test this idea in my heart for a few days and it continues to release something small and hard, scarred, and maybe even twisted shut inside of me – and fills that space with light. 

And it doesn’t fade over several days. It remains clear and solid. 
When I speak briefly to others at mealtime or in the lounge in front of the fire – they all say the same thing: Their time here  has been amazingly productive. It is such a special place. They were able to get so much done. They found the missing piece they had been searching for.

And my last night here: a blessing:

I sit by the fire and an older man comes to sit near me. I had seen him at lunch but had kept my nose in a book. We chat about the fire and the English weather. Like you do. And I ask if he is working on researching or writing like so many others, and he says “Oh I just come here to read. But I should write. One day, I should write maybe…” And I ask him what he might write about, and he tells me he is a live-in carer at a religious community for people with learning disabilities – which I translate into American as: a residential counselor for adults with developmental disabilities.

He says that he is filled with stories he could tell, he should tell. Lessons that the residents have taught him. Things that they understand easily that he needed to learn or relearn or be reminded of. He says that each person he has worked with has been a teacher in his life. 

And I tell him I know  exactly how he feels.

He told me of a woman, who saw him escorting a resident with Down’s Syndrome to an appointment on the bus. How she whispered to him about the grief she felt when she saw an adult with Down’s Syndrome as she second guesses a decision she made to terminate pregnancy many many years earlier, and wondered who her child might have been. And his kindness as he said to her: “I can’t judge you. You made a decision based on what you knew, and what was available to you at the time.”  He says “I knew she was grieving, and I knew these are such personal and painful decisions in every direction, I only know it has been an honor to live with the people I have lived with and cared for, for the past 25 years.”

He spoke of the joys and sorrows and the sacred spaces that the residents had allowed him to bear witness to. He told me stories of funerals and celebrations and surprises and the love of families and liberation from them. He talked of the ways the residents grieve, and how they talk to God, and how they love and how this had made him more whole, and better man. Each story he told, his eyes welled up with the holiness of the embodied lesson he had been taught.

He spoke of regrets for things he might have done better or differently over the years, and how he should probably write those down too.

And I said: “I hope you will. I really hope you will. Next time you come, don’t just bring books to read. Bring a nice journal and a good pen and write all your stories down. They are important, and you are the only one who has born witness to them, who has seen what you have seen, and been changed by it and have found what is sacred in each event. Please do write them down.” If I had an extra empty journal with me I would hand it to him with my best pen right then and there. 

He responded:  “ I just might do that. Six months before I retire I’ll have to buy that journal and come here on my weekends and write.”

And I said:

“You should. You really should. These kinds of stories are the most important kind of stories that anyone can ever tell.”

 

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Small Things

What follows is the eulogy that I gave for a beloved friend, Ellie Conant.

I have never written a eulogy before – and I hope never to have to do so for a young person ever again. I post it here, so that I can share it easily with those who have asked for a copy following her memorial – and because I think Ellie, in her own way, would enjoy advocating together with me, for notions of family that expand beyond blood ties.

 

Ellie was a BIG person. Who lived a BIG life.

But we never really knew that part of her.

We heard tell. We saw the photos and flyers for the huge queer parties she planned and curated. We watched her pace around and gather up her energies the afternoon and evening before an event – and we saw her spent and smeary the day after.

But I can only tell you small stories about her. I could tell you thousands of small stories about her, strung together on stretchy elastic like a candy necklace.

Her life with us was small and close. An inside life in inside voices.

Our children chose Ellie. And she chose them back. The love between them was overwhelming, visceral, and instant. Ellie would ask to come to our house, not to babysit, but to have a play date. Because she had forged an undeniable friendship with our then two and three year old. When she came, it was their time to be together – and David and I were encouraged to get out of their way. So they could do what it  was they did together: watch cartoons and tickle and wrestle and sit on the floor and have pillow fights

So she could cook for them from her mother’s recipes, and feed them as she had been fed. It so difficult to explain what food means in Korean culture – how food is relationship, is love, is family, is interconnection. Food is deep, and Ellie initiated our children into a world of food that connected her to her mother and grandmother and Korean ancestors – and simultaneously connected our children to their Korean birthmother, and grandmother and ancestors.

Early on, when we were out of town traveling to an adoption conference together – Ellie took the kids to a children’s museum walking distance from the hotel, while David and I attended panels discussing the importance of same race mentors in transracial adoptee’s lives. Our daughter in a sling on her back, the boy in a stroller, Ellie was crossing a small bridge on the sidewalk when a car slowed down to yell racist epithets at the three of them out the window. When she told me about it that evening at dinner – she said: “I can’t explain the feeling. Its nothing I ever felt before. I just held them so TIGHT when we got across the bridge, and I knew right then, that I would kill for these kids if I had to, or die for them. I am gonna be sticking by these kids for life.”

And she did. For the rest of her life.

Other memories: Ellie coming back from an afternoon at the playground: “Martha: we were playing pirate, and I’m telling you it went SO DEEP. SO deep. We were IN it – The kids were hollering commands from the deck and I was the first mate and it was just SO DEEP – it like it took me a while to come BACK? I was FEELIN’ IT. Do you know what I mean?”

Ellie at the pool with two kids clinging to the side walls in the shallow end – her freshly dyed purple hair in a hotel shower cap taped to her head to protect it from the chlorine. Ellie at the door with bags and bags of silly toys and sugary treats. Ellie taking the kids on Ellie-adventures – to her beloved seedy-ass Coney Island boardwalk haunts (with her crew drinking “grown up apple juice”) to arcades and kiddie rides and Ferris wheels. Out to dinner and to shoot pool at SuperFine. Bringing girlfriends home to meet the family. Ellie losing her marbles at Christmas buying every game and toy – disregarding all pleas for austerity or simplicity – covering the house with wrapping paper and bows and laughter.

At first, after their play dates – Ellie– zipping up her leather jacket, would pull on her gloves and dash – not knowing how or if she wanted to approach us, or if we would accept all of her, exactly as she was. But slowly, over time she began to linger, longer and longer chatting into the night in front of the fire as the kids slept – cracking open a beer or some soju – our grown up time together becoming as important as play time. We didn’t recognize it at first, but we were becoming a family.

Late at night she would open up sharing her fears, her hopes, her ambitions and dreams and frustrations. She would ask for advice. She would offer support. We celebrated her successes, we fretted and worried a bit and did our best to keep that to ourselves, or try to share it in small ways that would not overwhelm her or drive her away.

And then, one day: David and the kids and I decide to go apple picking – and he recalls that there is an orchard near Princeton where he grew up – we spend the day riding tractors and feeding bunnies and picking apples. Our little girl is stung by a bee in the palm of her hand, after we apply a damp rag to her chubby fist – we linger in the gift shop picking up jars of apple butter and cider vinegar – and I hear the kids call: “Moooom!!!! ELLIE’S HERE!!!! ELLIE IS HERE!!!” No, I say. That doesn’t make sense – “SHE IS!!!! LOOK!!! OVER THERE!!” and before I know it they are running into her arms – she is as surprised and stunned as we are, and nervously introduces us all to the beautiful woman at her side.

“This is my friend Melissa guys!!!”

“ANOTHER ONE? ” my daughter says –

“Shhhhh!” I say – 

and Ellie pulls me aside and whispers: “Its our first date. I mean, in the daytime, so lets just tell the kids she is a friend for now!”

But it is clear, she is not just a friend – and it is also clear that this relationship is going to expand our family, and transform and ground Ellie’s life.

And life unfolds – carving pumpkins, Harvest Moon dinners, fencing class, school concerts, and taekwondo belt tests – “Ellie Night” is every Wednesday – where she and the kids plan a menu and shop and cook together and we all laugh like maniacs.

We were at home together – Literally, and metaphorically.

And when troubles emerge our familial bonds become even more consolidated: She was there for the best times and the darkest days:

She would save our ass when one child had an MRI following a seizure and the other was sent home with lice on the same day my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer.

“Unnie, we are FAMILY. She said. Let me HELP you. You aren’t going to be able to do this alone – care for Maggie and the kids and your clients. Let ME help you take care of Maggie” And she did. She watched home repair shows and the Property Brothers and Judge Judy. She rubbed my mother’s feet – and her chemo-achey muscles and shopped for and cooked any food that she had an appetite for. When my mother became deathly ill, she called me from the ambulance, and stayed with her at the ER until I arrived – saving her life for the time being.

I never had a true sister. Neither did David. It took us a long time to realize that there was a name for the attachments we had to each other – When she and David wrote about our unusual patchwork tribe together in Gazillion Voices Magazine – Ellie’s voice and spirit and our life together was suddenly understood and appreciated by thousands of people. We were a family. We just were.

But a year ago October, when she first fell seriously ill, we knew that we needed to claim our titles: Sister, Unnie, Oppa, Imo, Aunt, Nephew, Niece and no longer side step or finesse who we were to each other.

And I wanted Melissa and Ellie to claim their roles in each other’s life – and intrusively, pre-emptively pre-proposed marriage for them the  day after a cancer diagnosis, the afternoon before  heart surgery.

There are absolutely no words to describe the strength and love and grace that Melissa has shown to Ellie over the course of their lives together – and especially over the past year, the past few months, up to her final days and moments. Loyal, protective, competent, heroic, wise, doting, present. Patient. Devoted. None of these words are enough.

And there are no words to describe what it meant to Ellie to have a family, an inside life with Melissa, and her silly Nano puppy, of her very own.

Small things are the things I will hang onto. The freckle behind her ear. The way she would tease and steer the subject away from any potential source of conflict. Her side-eye, her tiny feet. Her two handed gestures around gift giving and receiving. Her joy in a good meal. The pleasure she took in other people happiness.

Her laugh.

Her. Just her.

And all the small things that she cherished in and around her big, beautiful life.

She wrote “Blood may be thicker than water – but water flows more freely”

We will be bound to you forever, by water.

Thank you Ellie. For every single small moment.

I can never thank you enough.

 

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I am also happy to offer this as opportunity to ask  again for people to support her legacy project:

Before her death, Ellie spent time thinking about her legacy, the causes and the people on this planet that she most wanted to support – projects that would serve as extension of her core values and passions. She decided that her memory would be most honored by caring for LGBTQ youth in Korea. With the help of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice we are able to direct donations made in her memory toward a shelter in Korea for LGBTQ youth, as well as other projects.

Please help her extraordinary and nurturing spirit continue to work for change, compassion and liberation in this world.

Please share this post and follow this link to the Astraea donations page, and be sure to indicate that your donation is in memory of Ellie Conant.

Donations will be accepted through June, 2016–both the month of Ellie’s birth and the annual Pride celebration she loved so much. How fitting that we support her in spreading Pride into the world.

  
   
 

  

Keeping Secrets

This piece was previously published at my primary blog: What a Shrink Thinks, as well as by Psychology Tomorrow magazine. 

Kalli was the secret-keeper of Maldinga. Every day the people of Maldinga straggled through the woods to the clearing where Kalli’s cottage stood. They came one by one, never in two or threes. And one by one, they told Kalli their secrets. ~ Kate Coombs, The Secret Keeper. Almost two years ago, when I began […]

http://whatashrinkthinks.com/2013/03/04/keeping-secrets/

One Large Bottle


I’ve been thinking about writing, about being a writer, about writing books, about how and why people write – the professional and psychological functions and processes of writing – and how each writer I’ve met or listened to or worked with writes for different reasons, is immersed in different processes.

Some experience themselves as servants to a sacred Oracle. Others write purely out of their daydreams with little insight or awareness of how the story is connected to their own lives and history. Some write to keep themselves alive. Others feel driven by a need to share their story with an audience. Some write for a living, even if it is a sparse living. Some write as a method of self-regulation, self-exploration, self-help. Some are driven by deep narcissistic injury. Some write to reach others, to persuade, to change the world.

Here is the story of the first book I ever produced:

In 4th grade, after seeing him lead a Shakespeare workshop for elementary school students – I fell madly in puppy love with television actor and teen idol Henry Winkler, aka “The Fonz”.  I wrote long, long letters to him, about his performances, and all the wonderful heroic, kind, generous qualities I imagined he possessed. I confessed my ten year old troubles to him. I shared the solutions I’d found and how I imagined he would be proud of me when I was courageous, or protected someone weaker than myself. After about a year I collected all my heartfelt, “no one will ever understand me except YOU” letters and I stapled them between two pieces of decorated cardboard from a Lays Potato chip box. I wrote, in my very best cursive: “The Collected Winkler-Crawford Letters” on the cover.

It never once crossed my mind to attempt to mail these letters, or share them with a fan club, or to try in any way to get them in his hands.

I knew, even in fourth grade, that the imaginal audience that I was writing to served a symbolic function. I wouldn’t know what to do if I made contact with the actual subject of my devotion. When we moved a year or so later, I hid the book on the closet shelf before we left for good: just in case a girl my same age, facing similar struggles, moved in next, and needed to know that she was not alone.

For me, this is the most sacred aspect of writing: rolling up a message, stuffing it in a bottle and flinging it to the sea as an act of faith in something. As a gift to someone.

Anyone.

But not anyone specific.

Blogging is a way to do that regularly, with hundreds of small bottles, tossed into the sea at random intervals. 
It is the actual process of releasing it – blindly casting it out and away, out of my hands, following its own trajectory and landing somewhere or landing nowhere – that feels honorable, a form of obedience.

I can’t see how it’s possible that  this  idiosyncratic process, this weird-ass form of prayer could ever result in something publishable. I’m not sure I feel that I actually own it, after I have released it – or that it belongs to me in anyway. I don’t understand how to have a goal, or an attachment to any specific outcome for  anything I’ve ever written.

I’m not sure I could write at all if it were not an impractical, nonsensical, nearly pointless act of faith.

In Quaker process when you feel compelled to share a message, it isn’t your business to think about who the message is for, or its reception. It’s only your business to articulate the message faithfully.

Maybe it’s for everyone or only one person in ear shot. Or just for you.

Or merely to be faithful.

Full stop.

The outcome is not predictable or even your business.

So, in the past several months I have felt the impulse to work on a much longer, expanded message, to roll up an entire sheath of paper, and to stuff it into a very large bottle.

Or maybe it is time, again, for me to write and sort and gather many letters – and collect them into a stack, 
stapled into an old potato chip box, decorated with a fancy calligraphy  and leave it somewhere hidden,  trusting  that it will be found, or will find the person who most needs it.

One copy, one bottle, one ocean.

And if it lands somewhere and is of use to someone: fantastic.

What if I never hear of it again? If it sinks to the bottom of the sea and deteriorates into salt and sand and pulp? Or washes on to some far shore, and someone finds it and discards it? Or decides to make it of use or repurpose it in their own life in some way that I will never ever find out about?

That satifies too – I’ll will have done it for faith’s sake alone.

As silly as that may be, for me that is enough.

The truth is , because of this, that I have a hard time considering myself “a writer.” I experience myself as a work-a-day psychotherapist who writes to keep herself afloat, to make sense of what she has absorbed, to wrest meaning out of the suffering I encounter every work day.

People tell me their secrets – confessing their sins, reaching for reparation, aspiring to live out their callings. The psychotherapeutic process is for me, a spiritual path of relationship, compassion, self-reflection, contemplation, and empathic praxis. It is also a path which has offered me a unique position to observe the ways our own stories intersect and collide with larger historical, generational and cultural myths, the ways that larger cultural trends and beliefs press upon our sense of who we are and tangle themselves up with who we should be. The tangles that tie each life to life.

My work in the office, in writing  is in large part, about untangling and sorting these threads: memory, fantasy, mythology, history, spirituality, culture, archetype, community, and individuality.

A dream:

I am at a quaint, dusty used-bookseller. There is a table near the front window where a mother and a young boy are having tea. I pick up a box from the floor which seems to hold some new kind of Lego construction toy: long tubes that snap together in various colors, used for sorting threads and wires and undersea cables; these pieces extend like a large net or a web around the world yet each through-line, origin and end-point of each thread  can be identified easily. I am thrilled with the toy, and notice, as I show it to the woman sitting near me, that it reads: “This is not a toy. This product is intended for use by responsible adults only.”

Within the dream, I was lucid enough to recognize  that I was immersed in a dream about  writing, researching, and organizing a larger project – a book that tries to sort a complex and large web of interconnection  – about the intersections of spirituality and psychotherapy, of agnostic faith in The Whole and about healing.

I understood this within the dream not only because I was surrounded by beautiful, delicious books with well-thumbed pages, but also because I worked with a poet for many years who struggled with dry spells. This manifested in his dreaming life as unconnected individual Lego “blocks” held in his hands, that were strangely relieving. As we accepted and worked with these blocks and just before the capacity to write returned – we knew it was coming as the poet began to dream of building complex  towers, and all the pieces clicked together.

This is a psychotherapists’ brain: Dreaming of my client’s dreams and trying to make sense of the maze of through-lines that connect us all.

And knowing that we are all connected in ways we cannot easily imagine.

It is too daunting for me to say “my book” or the “book am writing” just as I dare not say I am a writer when I really have just created a peculiar method of prayer to the Unknown. Writing as a way to surrender to the Void.

But maybe I can say this: If I were to write a book, this is the book I would write: A book that explores the ways our unconscious lives impact each other – How my personal story is re-membered, changed by and changes my clients – how my client’s stories seep into my bones and mine into theirs – and how these subtle transformations spread out into the larger world. A book that  tries to identify some of the universalizing unnoticed, unnamed forces that press in on us from the outside and bind us all to each other.

Every one of us.

Whether we recognize our insoluble interconnectedness or whether we don’t.

I don’t know what, if anything, I can actually construct by sorting through these tangled strings (I am cautions of the hubris of Arachne and do not wish to be turned into a spider.) Here is what I do know: I would be sure not to play with these connections frivolously – but to make it of use and to offer up whatever pieces I am able to sort out and snap together as a book, to any interested readers, to my community, my clients, and in service of my own growth. “This is not a toy. This product is intended for use by responsible adults only.”

And then I will search for a large and beautiful bottle.

And I will stand at waters edge, and I will throw it as hard and as far as I can.