Sunday, April 12, 2020


It's been quite some time since I have felt able to write anything at all.

It isn't that I've lacked ideas. They've been elusive phantoms, arriving and then disappearing without taking form. They've visited me while I drive, or take walks, but then when I sit down with a pen or at the keyboard, they're gone. It's been odd.

I grew up writing. So much of me is based in my intimate relationship to words.

I believe part of this long break was due to compound trauma. Five years ago I joined a writing group with disastrous results, around the same time that my father's family disinherited me. In the writing group I chose to revisit parts of my failed reunion. When I put what I had on the table, my readers reacted violently, intensely, and negatively. People didn't want to read what I had written so much as project their feelings about it with a fury. They had a need to contain me, and to tell me what they felt adoptees should think and say. They asked me inappropriate questions that left me speechless, such as "Did your parents force you to live under the stairs like Harry Potter?" and "I want to write what your birth mother's experience is." I didn't write a single word about being abused by my adoptive parents. I wasn't writing about my childhood, nor is it my job to write about my birth mother's experience, except tangentially. More than one respondent asked, "Why do you feel the need to hunt her down?" I wasn't "hunting" anyone down. I wasn't a predator. I was a human being, but I wasn't seen or treated as such. Even worse, the moderator of the group--I believe because she was conflict averse--didn't step in to moderate. She even suggested that my story needed a content warning. Why? To create an atmosphere of expectation that my life is horrific? There was nothing in my story that required a content warning. As I said to all of them, "People cannot handle anything that questions the Cult of Mother Love." I had no stomach to continue sharing.

As far as reunion with my father's family went, up to that moment, things had been fairly pleasant. Some people were more open to me than others, and I accepted that. Then my grandmother died. I was heartbroken but happily surprised to be included in the obituaries. A month later, I received a phone call asking me to sign away my claim to my father's part of the inheritance; I agreed readily. I had never wanted anything financial fro reunion, and when I had met them I said as much. Then I received an e-mail from my aunts, which was cold and full of excuses as to why I didn't deserve my father's share. I wish they had left things with our phone call, but my sense is that one aunt, one in particular who had never wanted me around, needed to make it patently clear how much she didn't want me to have anything. The e-mail said that I didn't deserve the money because I wasn't around for my grandmother's life. Consider for a moment the emotional knife that was. Did I choose not to be around for my grandmother? How was that in my control, as a baby given away? My aunt insinuated that I had abandoned my grandmother. The e-mail also insinuated that I had found a way to worm my way into my grandmother's life and change the will before I had even met her. How was that possible? How horrid and rude could my aunt be? I had gladly agreed to sign away my part. Telling me that I didn't deserve it because I am not family; why? Why say it? Why say that I was a petty thief? I immediately called one of my other aunts, in tears, telling her how much the message in the e-mail hurt me. She pulled me up short, saying that I was ungrateful. WHAT? Ungrateful for signing away my inheritance? Excuse me? She said I was ungrateful because they had given me so many things already. Ok. Photographs. A mug. Two pieces of jewelry that clearly they didn't want. What part of this was a hardship for them? What part of this was a sacrifice? None of it. All the sacrifice clearly had to be mine. The line was drawn. It was clear. From that moment on, a door closed in my heart. It was too late.

I refused to be grateful for being alive, what happened to me that was beyond my control, or for scraps.

Then I was on holiday with my husband and children. My aunts were clamoring for me to sign the papers. I was out of the country, but clearly only they were allowed to travel and enjoy life. When I returned, I found out that the court date to disinherit me was MY BIRTHDAY. I cried again.

I decided to sit on the papers until after my birthday; it was too much to be disinherited on that particular day. I signed the papers April 28th, sent them off, and then I cut ties with people who clearly didn't care for me at all. It was emotionally liberating.

Do I wish these events had better outcomes? Do I think things might have been different if my father were living? Yes, of course. I am left to live with ghosts. That's my curse. I refuse, however, to allow others demand that I conform to their idea of how a "good" adoptee behaves.

I have spent the past five years thinking about how and why people demand particular things of adoptees; why some adoptees feel that they must conform or get stuck in a loop of needing constant affirmation from inaccessible resources; and how society is structured to maintain a painful, layered hegemony that people don't even recognize is present. I have also seen a strange phenomenon of people who claim the mantle/identity of "adoptee" without substantiating it. Being an adoptee is rather like inhabiting a role outside the human world. We aren't treated as human beings. People fetishize adoptees as well as abuse us. Adoptee status is a way of being an outsider whose membership is loose, and questions about it can be conveniently explained or batted away. It's confounding that people would want to claim to be adoptees, but people do many otherwise inexplicable things. Performing allegiance with people who struggle is an alluring prospect for some.

It leads me back again to fairy tales. In many ways, I believe adoption represents a ghostly, ghoulish outgrowth of some of society's worst fears, like those recorded by the Brothers Grimm and others. That might also explain part of people's attraction and desire to play roles in what they see as drama, rather than lived reality. This is a complex set of thoughts I need to assemble in a more sophisticated manner, but I am excited about where it will go. I have more ghosts to meet.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Foxes and Melencolia

A few weeks ago, I read a review of Mary Norris's new book, Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen, in the New York Times. It struck me on two counts. First, of course, because anyone enamored with ancient Greece has to be sufficiently nerdy, and because she is an editor. Second, the review made reference to the old chestnut of the hedgehog and the fox, attributing it to Sir Isaiah Berlin. With all respect to Berlin, I knew he hadn't coined this metaphor but used it to describe different Russian writers; I also remembered I had a book on my shelf (Stephen Jay Gould's 2003 tome, The Hedghog, The Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between the Sciences and the Humanities) considering the same tale to describe the nature of the humanities and the sciences.

According to Gould, the source of this tale is shadowy. I sense that it owes something to Aesop and in turn, the jataka tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, but the first Western ancient reference we have is from Archilochus, a Greek poet of the 7th century BCE. Erasmus took this up and wrote in Latin, Multa novit vulpes, verum echines unum magnum. My Latin is rusty, but the gist is that the fox creates many [solutions], but the hedgehog creates one large [solution]. Thus the fox is an agile thinker while the hedgehog does one thing extremely well with great skill.

While in some ways I wish I were a hedgehog, I am a fox. I disparage myself for being so because I don't stay in one place very long, although I return to things I love.

How does this apply? I have been thinking about where I have been, who I was, and what I have learned.

My life at this point comprises many chapters. The one in St. Louis, where I absolutely didn't fit in except perhaps at the tail end of high school. My work then was to engineer a way out, which I did. I have several memories that stand out, one of which is of my 7th grade English teacher, who introduced me to Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury. Mr. Sinclair's encouragement meant the world to me. He used to call me the Professor in an affectionate way, and I thought I would walk that path.

There was my life in England, spread over many years, in which I was an outsider, but being different, happily, never mattered. From primary school to Cambridge to the Paul Mellon Centre and beyond, I could be my eccentric self without remark; as one of my best friends told my husband and children, "She was always very focused." When I was in London recently, I walked through its streets and crossed paths with my ghost selves, not needing a map. I learned that London feels the most like home to me.

There was my life at Bryn Mawr, which was rocky at the time, but which I now recall fondly. I tried on many hats and many languages (over the years, perhaps seven). I self-flagellate for not becoming fluent in any, although I can muddle through in most of them. It brings me pleasure to be able to read things in the original, even if at times it is a hard slog. I adored my courses in architecture and archaeology, even the 8 AM Greek sculpture lectures with Mrs. Ridgway, who would shake her worry beads in your face if you dared doze off. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on the Assyrians and representations of architecture in palace sculpture; my committee said belatedly they wished they had asked me to stay for my master's. Tant pis. I learned that my heart is anchored in antiquity.

There was my year on the Watson Fellowship, writing poetry in the Hebrides and in Ireland, engaging with writing and history and identity. I loved the immense freedom: exploring sites, reading, meeting people. It was idyllic but of course transitory. I learned that poetry is how I feel most comfortable expressing what is hardest for me to say.

There was the long, painful time in graduate school at Berkeley, slipping about in a murderous chess game between powerful people while trying to find my footing. I entered as a medievalist and left as a scholar of the long 19th century, speaking of moving on to different fields. Oh, and my master's thesis was on an ancient topic, to add to my foxy nature. I learned that no one was going to stop me, despite the landmines and Molotov cocktails chucked my way.

Then academia and being torpedoed. Deciding to apply either to medical school or nursing school, and choosing the latter so as not to abandon my children for seven years. Nursing it was and is; I have been in maternal child nursing for 10+ years at this point. I learned humbly that bedside nursing feels right to me.

Then of course there was technical editing at Oracle during the tech bubble around 2000 and now freelance academic editing. Occasionally I write for myself, but not enough, and I still don't feel I know what I am meant to write. I know it's poetry, but I wait.

I am a restless thinker. My mind moves about at immense speed. I read voluminously: newspapers, reviews, journals, magazines, books. I also unabashedly adore popular culture and see as many films of all types as I am able to squeeze into my schedule. I make connections and love relationships between texts and in art. I think constantly about the hows and whys things are/work as they do.

It pleases me that the article I published on 19th-century design and nationalism in Britain has proved useful to people. Sometimes I think I might like to publish another academic article, but other times it seems like a frivolous conversation, given what I see at work every day: people fighting to survive, especially women and infants of color. I am stubborn and committed to finding more ways to improve outcomes for them.

All of this is me, but it is impossible to plumb the depths of it. Perhaps two, maybe three people have access to these accordion folds and my feelings about them; although I share willingly, they can't see the entirety.

Certainly at its heart, forging identity is a lifelong process (as it is for anyone else), but there is always that ghost person--the buried identity, who I might have been--who I am always chasing. Why am I this way, and how might I have been different? These are unanswerable questions with an incessant siren call. Finding my family has helped me put a few things into context. My great-great-grandmother and another great-grandmother being English may have drawn me there, despite my adoptive father's job. I don't know. Then the languages: I have always been good at learning them, but knowing about my family's history in diplomacy and being multilingual might be at the heart of my desire to speak French and German ever since I was tiny. In my bones I am the sum of those who came before me, and they speak to me, whether or not I recognize their voices and messages.

What am I doing in this life, what I am leaving that is of value? I ask myself this daily, hourly sometimes. My work in the hospital leaves me feeling that I do something worthwhile--I stand by, guard, and act as witness for women and their families in intimate moments. That said, I can't help peeling back the layers. How does all of this make me who I am? What is identity in the world of an adoptee? How can we make sure that adoptees are the ones who control this narrative about ourselves?

And while I do that, there will always be more. More questions, more seeking, more pushing myself to figure this out, running about like a fox, finding joy and inspiration in poetry, film, novels, plays, and marvelous actors like Mr. H, who touch my heart. I may sometimes be like Duerer's gloomy seraph, but I wouldn't trade my melancholy for the life of a lotus eater. Not at all.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

The Long Haul

I was raised an only child in my adoptive family. I always knew I probably had siblings out there, but I didn't know how many or who they were.

Nine and a half years ago, I finally found out who my mother was, and in discovering that, I found that she had a son who she had kept and raised. He is almost exactly five years younger than I am. I was thrilled for a number of reasons, mostly because he seemed to be so much like me.

He has two doctorates. He is incredibly intelligent and driven. At first I was very nervous, thinking I couldn't live up to what he had accomplished, but I realized that what I do is different. My doctorate is something else, in a different field, but we match each other in many ways.

As we got to know each other--and it was difficult, given the crossfire and doubt of a mother who didn't want us to have a relationship at all--it became clear that not only were we similar intellectually, we have the same emotional structure. We are people pleasers. We doubt ourselves. We bend over backwards to make everyone else happy at our own expense: all this, and we weren't raised in the same family. We are anxious and nervous. We are perfectionists. We are harsh on ourselves. We love reading. He lives to research and publish. I--well--I have published, although I give up on myself more easily. I would say that we are both passionate about our fields.

From the start, he was committed to knowing me, and I felt welcomed and loved. But even given his commitment, it wasn't easy.

Then came the fall; it was hard and precipitous. It came because our mother demanded it, and he was raised to please her. For anyone who knows adoption, it was the same old story, the same puppeteer pulling the strings.

I don't excuse the way my brother treated me. It was terrible. Awful. I don't want to catalogue the ways in which I felt abandoned; it happened more than once over a number of years. Friends of mine saw me plummet to the bottom of a dark abyss, almost to extinguish myself. They asked me again and again, "Why do you love him? Why do you keep trying?"

I really didn't have a good answer. At one point, I had to shut the door on any relationship. I chose myself because I was worth more than I was receiving. I refused to speak to my brother for almost three years because I didn't want to be an afterthought. I wanted to be his sister.

I probably wouldn't have opened the door to my brother again if I hadn't been contacted by a surprise sister. Yes, our mother had another baby that neither my brother nor I knew about because...why would our mother tell the truth about anything?

When our sister contacted me, I was shocked and had the breath knocked out of me. What? How could it be that our mother lied about having another secret child? Oh, wait: it's our mother. It seemed unfathomable that she could have gone through two hidden pregnancies in college and done this twice, but, yeah.

I contacted my brother after these three years of silence and told him about our sister. He said immediately, "I don't even care right now that we have another sister. I am so happy that we are speaking again. Also, now you know how it feels." It's crazy to be blindsided by someone else's secrets and lies. It really is.

After this explosive event, my brother and I have worked to reconnect. Over the years, I was explicit about what I wanted and needed, and he has taken it to heart. He responds to me in real time. He is available to me. He listens. He opens up. He wants to be present, and he is. For all my saying people don't change, it's not true. It's that people don't change unless they commit to changing. They have to want to meet you halfway.

I know people who have siblings (like my husband) who aren't close to them at all. I understand that blood doesn't mean people are similar or share interests. My brother and I aren't alike in what we do or care about, although we both work in the medical arena, but we listen to each other and understand being sensitive and have a good sense of humor about what we both lack.

From the first time I met him, nearly nine years ago in December of 2009, I knew that we were on the same page. I knew that building a lasting relationship would be difficult. I trusted him, and he let me down. More than once. Now, though, I think we are in it for the long haul. I am at least willing to try.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Optimism--or--What the Hell Was I Thinking?

Why do I seek out the attention of people who can never and will never be present for me?

Why is feeling unsettled both comfortable and excruciating?

Rhetorical questions: I know the answer. It's long and complicated. Yet here I am, again.

I love to be hopeful. I have been hopeful for years. I have given people I love incredible amounts of leeway. I was told by a therapist once to see these people as rubber bands; they stretch and return (maybe). I always want to see the best in people I love. I forever want to imagine my friends being their happiest selves and also sharing their joys and sadnesses with me.

Recently I have counseled friends around me, stuck in their grooves, wanting things that will never happen; they are chasing ghost relationships. I see what they are doing, and I gently remind them not to put energy into things that cannot change. At the same time, I know that I do it, too.

The terrible truth is that I see things that aren't there. I ignore the uneasiness in my gut and tell myself this time will be different. I end up in murky pools of self-loathing because I desperately want to perceive things just so. I also think I pursue people who give me crumbs, feed me half-truths, and lead me along to suit themselves because their inconstancy is weirdly seductive. What they tell me is true, but only up to a point. When I press them about what they mean, they generally evade my questions or dissemble. I know that they aren't telling me the truth, but I look past that and accept whatever partial shiny bits I like.

The most painful thing is that these situations are all very predictable. I am 49. I have been here many times. I could be a contender in the Olympics of reading narcissistic people.

I know that in all honesty, I set myself up. I blame myself harshly for this, but what I should do--and am doing--is to change my behavior. That's all I can do. The reality is that these are people who aren't meant to be in my life. I am finally accepting that. I have slowly cut them out, one by one, until there was one left, one dogged remainder. And now that is over. I am both hurt and relieved.

I remember long ago, when I first met my husband. I was heartsore and bruised. I had been with a man who didn't make me a priority. Just didn't. He loved me, but I wasn't even in the top three important things in his life, or if I was, I didn't feel it. I said so again and again. Finally we broke up, which was for the better, although I have always missed his wit and intelligence.

Anyway, not long after that I met my husband. He is steadfast, if nothing else. He always shows up. I remember maybe three weeks into dating, one long ago July, he asked me to go on a rafting trip with him that following September. I thought, "What? How can you be certain you still want to be with me seven weeks from now?" I asked my friends what to do, and if this was normal. They said it was, if we liked each other. I had no experience of this, really, because I had always been with men who were incredibly emotionally absent and selfish and barely thought past the next day.

So my now-husband called every day. He made room for me in his life. Really made room. He has issues, big ones, like being Prussian and throwing me under the bus with his mother, on top of many other things I don't wish to catalogue in public (I am not perfect, so I am not finger pointing here). But I could count on him, and 21 years later, he may drive me insane, but he still shows up. He doesn't make excuses; things will happen or they won't happen, but he is always upfront about it. Our relationship is messy on many levels, but he is reliable. That matters to me. That isn't to say there aren't huge holes in my life. There are. That said, no matter how much we fight, no matter how awful it gets, he is present--at least to talk when I am vulnerable.

All this to say that last night, I felt like Charlie Brown with Lucy, when when she pulls away the football. That's exactly it: people don't change. It's incredibly hard for me to trust people; it's hard for me to accept I am not a priority when I care about them, but c'est la vie. It's hard for me to be put away in a box, but if I am, that means it is truly time to close the door. When someone says, "Got to go, bye, see ya later!" and they don't come back, take them at their word. The first time. And don't go after them.

Part of my willingness to go after people who clearly don't make me a priority has to be related to being left at the hospital that one time. It sucks having to be the one to love myself enough to mend that, but that's the plan.

I think again to dear Charles Trenet and "Que reste-t-il de nos amours." Sometimes things should remain memories. I can't bear anymore souvenirs qui me poursuit sans cesse.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Trials of NAAM

I feel that for many adoptees, National Adoption (Awareness) month is like running a painful obstacle course.

November is terrible. I always feel myself sliding down in October, and then I remember, "Oh, fucking NAAM."

I have felt suicidal in November more times than I can count. It's not a lucky month for me, although my father loved the number 11 and I do feel him with me. Thank goodness this year I have been on my anti-depressants for a long time now; the dent in me is palpable, but I am not going down, not this time.

I have been in too many fruitless, annoying conversations with adoptive parents who told me that I am better off dead, on the street, or back in a fictional orphanage; with birth parents who wrote over my story, MY STORY, to tell me that I need to think about how my mother felt (uh, no, adoptees do get a turn, and it's not my job to talk about you); and from adoptees who are all over the place: specifically, telling others that "negativity" (however one defines that) "ruins" adoptions for others, or telling me that asking questions was uncalled for when they backed a pro-adoptive parenting award. I said, "Is it wise to time this award during NAAM when adoptee voices are already the least heard?" The response "It's unwise to question things that are already in motion," I think is the paraphrase, which makes no sense at all.

No, I won't be silent. No, I won't tell you that it's all right. No, I won't agree to disagree when you are abusive and wrong. If you want to get into the ring, be prepared. As a friend told me not long ago, I give as good as I get, so don't think I will bend to your discombobulated rudeness.

I was thinking about times in the past when civilians have said shocking and appalling things to me about my being an adoptee. Not everyone is an asshole, but many are.

My mother-in-law, that demon on earth, told me that she couldn't understand how my parents would bring me into their home: I was like an animal from the pound with unknown pedigree, and what if I turned out to be JEWISH? Um Gottes Willen. She died before I found out that I am Jewish, but also a descendant of Prince Metternich. My great-grandmother grew up in the family castle in Koblenz. I am not sure which of these I would more have enjoyed throwing in her face. Sadly, one can't properly enjoy Schadenfreude when your opponent is deceased.

I had someone I like tell me last night, in all naivety, that he likes it when people can have a sense of humor, and isn't it funny when siblings in families say "You're adopted!" to be mean. Is it funny? I guess, maybe to civilians. I refrained from saying anything, but there it lay between us. Adoptees are  funny. Ha. So funny. At times it is refreshing to see people with their masks and gloves off as a reminder of how society sees us. We are disposable jokes, no getting around it.

Then there is the memory I can't shake, the one that was so over the top that even I, with the thin skin of an adoptee, knows was a blast from some unmoored place inside the person who made the comments. It made no sense at all. It was beyond tone-policing to near insanity.

"What was your adoptive family like? How did your upbringing with your adoptive family not fit who you are? This information would give more meaning to the intro paragraphs. How lost, alone, foreign, are you in your life so far, that would propel you to pursue your birth mom like that? Even little glimpses into memories would help to draw the reader into your predicament. Were you emotionally abused? Physically? Did they put you in a cupboard under the stairs like Harry Potter?

The recognition that birth moms give two precious gifts to their adopted out children...First, the ultimate gift, the gift of LIFE. Second, the gift of self-awareness that for whatever reasons, they are incapable of giving a child the love and care they need, so they let them go, in hopes of a better life. Wow. Just wow. This recognition is a piece that feels missing from your story. 

The glimpses you reveal about [your mother's] past are important. Hiding the pregnancy, wearing a girdle, drunk at a party. I want more of this, and I want a more compassionate exploration of her experience. Was she raped? Was she living at home, hiding her growing belly from her parents, or from her dorm-mates or sorority sisters? This seems to me to be heroic, and I feel these details are tossed off in an almost dismissive way because you are so angry. I really think that your idea of writing from [your mother’s] perspective would be a very valuable next step. To dive into the story of your pregnancy and her decision to carry you although she could not keep you. To heal.

I hope you aren't offended by these comments."

Seriously? SERIOUSLY? More about my mother, and BE NICE and HEAL? Well, you can imagine that I didn't take this non-criticism passively. I don't have time for this kind of garbage, self-indulgent, emotional reaction. People say, "Oh, but you have to teach, to educate." At what price? Maybe before people make sweeping judgments about adoptees' lives and writ awful things about us, they could take stock of their own reactions and feelings--but somehow I doubt that will happen anytime soon. Humans are imperfect, and in general so unthinking and in love with themselves.

Fear, insecurity, and narcissism make for bad companions, and NAAM sure brings them out of the woodwork.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


How does one return? Can one?

I am not quite certain. I don't believe that one can ever truly come home.

Like Odysseus, I am forever an exile.

I am bringing back my blog, at least as a trial run. We shall see.

I have returned to it as a visitor. I reread some of the posts. Before I went live, I considered editing some of what I wrote all those years before to make things easier for the people I included. Then I decided not to edit. This is my truth. I love the people I wrote about. They know I do. Life is messy.

Allowing that ambiguity to hold me is a new sensation; it's not fear or panic. I own the ripples. I own not seeing all the patterns; I won't annotate; I won't explicate. I live.

I am here. 

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Beating Like a Wild Heart

I ran across Jack Antonoff's song "Like a River Runs" by accident. It describes perfectly my feelings and struggles in relation to my father's absence. Regret, sadness, victimhood, trying to move beyond, giving up, running, remembering his light. It is also perfect music to help me while I run.

I love you, Dad.