Monday, January 31, 2011


If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
If turnips were watches, I'd wear one by my side.
And if "ifs" and "ands" 
Were pots and pans,
There'd be no work for tinkers!

We are back to the "what ifs." What do I wish I'd done that I didn't do.

In my teens, I wanted to be a physician. I loved the idea of learning about the intricacies of the human body, how drugs work, and helping people to be well. I had great grades in high school. I could have chosen the pre-med track at college, but I didn't think I was smart enough, or that I could weather the hardships of internship and residency.

I remember one day when a representative from the 5-year Bachelor's/Doctor of Medicine program at the University of Missouri, Kansas City came to my high school. The room was packed because most of the students at my high school (a day/boarding school) were the kids of rural physicians in Missouri and Illinois. Many of them had plans to become physicians themselves. The representative talked about how hard medical school is,  how only the best and brightest can succeed, etc. He was not encouraging. When I asked a question about the application process, he asked if I had been volunteering in a hospital. I answered in the negative, and he told me that I could forget applying because I would never be accepted. Being the self-hating 16-year-old I was at the time, I took what he said to heart. 

Then when I got to Bryn Mawr and met people in my class who were living and breathing pre-med, and who spent all of their time in the lab, and who talked about the grueling nature of preparing for medical school, I shrank farther from even trying. I decided that my mind could be well applied to non-medical questions in archaeology, and that was that. 

Over the years I toyed with abandoning my Ph.D. and preparing for medical school, but I really didn't think I could make it through. I did meet one very inspiring woman, a medical student at UCSF in the '90s, who was dating one of my roommates. I thought she was brilliant on many levels: she spoke fluent German and could speak intelligently about pretty much anything. She was smart, moreover, without being arrogant or dismissive. She encouraged me to follow her path. She hadn't applied to medical school right after her Bachelor's, taking time off to travel and research. During medical school, she volunteered in women's health clinics in Bangladesh and Nepal. Medicine was her passion, and she was actually helping people, rather than reading in dusty archives and trying to get a venomous, waspish adviser to approve a dissertation.

Time passed, I got my Ph.D., and was still miserable. When Callum was born, I had the opportunity to talk at length with physicians and nurses in the NICU. I thought briefly about preparing for medical school and pursuing the old dream of being a physician, but that would have meant abandoning my newborn, not having a second child, and investing in a completely different future--even though by then, I knew I could do it. Nursing school was a faster path to a parallel profession, and I told myself I would be happy not taking call and working fewer hours.

What I didn't exactly realize is that nursing and medicine are complementary but completely different. Nursing is about providing holistic care and being at the bedside, but following orders and not making medical diagnoses (I refuse to admit that nursing diagnoses are actual diagnoses). [For example: when I see torticollis in a baby, I cannot call it "torticollis" when I am charting, but have to describe only what I see and say something like "Muscles in the neck are not equally developed bilaterally. Head is not held symmetrically at midline and inclines to the right." It's a bit irritating.] Nurses can suggest treatment plans to physicians, but in the end, treatment is the physician's call. Some physicians are more open to taking suggestions to others, and some are more collegial with nurses than others. Medicine is about looking at data, making diagnoses, prescribing treatment, and looking for results. They are extremely busy and focused. They only want to hear the facts. They don't spend much time with patients, and sometimes don't listen well either to nurses or patients. 

I believe that in the big scheme, I would have been happier as a physician, and of course I could have done all of it. I have high school classmates--no offense--who were not terribly bright but who are physicians today. I would have been a physician with nurse-like qualities, like my own primary care physician, whom I love. She listens, doesn't hurry me, considers me holistically, and admits when there are things she needs to go look up, like hereditary spherocytosis and portal vein thrombosis. We discuss her thoughts together and collaborate on my plan of care--she directs, but does not dictate.

If I had my life to do over again, I would have been pre-med at Bryn Mawr, including finding a way to do junior year abroad. I would have been accepted at every medical school I applied to--I might as well dream big! 

The major drawback is that I wouldn't have met some very amazing people in my life--Thomenon, Gale, Nalini, Mark--and I wouldn't have my two sons. I cannot imagine life without them now.

I suppose I could still go back to medical school even now, but by the time I finished residency, I would be 50+. Stranger things have happened, certainly, but for now I am content with my life as it is. It's time to look ahead, not backward.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Regret Redux

I am not sure how the person who came up with the list of 30 truths decided on these 30 assignments, but an awful lot of them focus on regret--things not done or that should have been done. Regret and atonement. BFFs of mine.

Today I am supposed to think about something I wish I hadn't done. There are so many things I could choose! I could construe this broadly, and talk about how I wish I hadn't been so passive all my life. I could be specific, and say I wish I hadn't taken Sociology of Gender or Comparative Politics when I was a first year in college because I didn't get much out of either class. I could say that I wish I hadn't been addicted to McVitie's Plain Chocolate Digestive Biscuits. I could say that I wish I hadn't been born in St. Louis, although that way I would have missed out on my parents. I could say that I wish I hadn't been so lazy in Greek because the B+ I got in the second semester, although I took the class Pass/Not Pass, was counted in the calculation of honors at graduation time. I missed being summa cum laude by two hundredths of a grade point. Sigh. Plato just wasn't sexy enough, and I paid for it.

To narrow it down to just one thing is very difficult, but I will choose the evening of October 11, 1986. My parents were away for the weekend, and I was staying in the dorms on the campus of my high school, which is a day/boarding school. Only the seven-day boarders were around. I had a good time at dinner and then went to my room to do homework. I had a guy friend in the year below me. We were friends with benefits back in the time before such non-relationships had a name. He came by my room around 6:30. We talked, started making out, and before long, before I could register what was happening, we were having sex. He lasted less than five seconds, so I didn't have time to say, "Stop!" There was no condom. It was the middle of my cycle. Not good.

But pregnancy rarely happens, right? Surely I wouldn't get pregnant. Oops. I figured it out before I missed my period. I knew I had to have an abortion, and I did. Alone. I had a boyfriend, not this guy, who of course I didn't tell about any of this. That was bad--truly horrible and selfish of me. It was also bad that the boy who knocked me up was a complete asshole and laughed and joked when I told him that I was pregnant. He didn't offer me support, financial or otherwise, during or after the procedure, which I remember vividly: early in the morning, November 22, 1986. One of my friends drove me to Illinois to have the abortion because Missouri required parental consent, and NO WAY was I telling my parents. The afternoon before, Asshole had the nerve to come to my dorm room and say, "Hey, want to have sex again? It won't matter; you're pregnant already." My answer to that was HELL no. I think I threw something at him to get him to leave the room. He had such a terrible, vicious, smirky grin. Ugh.

I don't regret the abortion, but I regret having so little respect for myself that I let Asshole use me. I began hating myself even more. Why, or how, could anyone ever love me? Why couldn't this have happened with the boy I loved with all my heart, if it had to happen at all? Am I a magnet for bad luck? Yes.

I had the continued misfortune to run into said Asshole last year at a reunion my high school had in the Bay Area for those of us living out here. Yes, Asshole now lives in Oakland, about 20 minutes from me, not back in St. Louis. Yes, Asshole has a son my elder son's age, and we have mutual friends in soccer leagues. Ah, fate is cruel. Anyway, I avoided speaking to Asshole at the reunion and refused to get near him at all. At one point we were taking a group picture and his wife told him to stand next to me. I am pretty sure he told her what happened between us, and she was very nice, but I got the sense that they were trying to mess with me. Why would she be so nice to me? Maybe he didn't tell her, though, because I can't imagine he could paint himself in a good light--then again, he's a great liar.

Asshole proved he is still an asshole by making fun of the car I drove in high school in some conversation he crashed into. Is the car I drove in high school, 25 years ago, still a relevant topic? Seriously? He was also bragging about playing golf in San Francisco in a group that once included the German Consul. I know he brought this up pointedly: my husband is German, and Asshole butted into a conversation I was having with another alum in German. You can take the boy out of the cheap, closed-minded community, but not the cheap and closed-minded community out of the boy. So true. He is still incredibly insecure and focused on money and prestige, but now I have more of both than he does. Poetic justice.

On the other hand, it felt good to be in a room with him, register my disgust, and know that he really doesn't have the power to do anything to hurt me anymore. But seeing how slimy and strange he is--even today--makes me wish all the more that I hadn't subjugated myself to him on October 11, 1986. I was worth so much better.

I regret not being able to value myself back then. I forgive myself for being blind and hamstrung by fear of abandonment and low-self worth, but if I think too long about how even I abandoned myself, I still weep.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Today's truth considers regret. What would I do if my best friend was in a car accident and ended up in the hospital after we had argued several hours before?

First, I am adopted, so clearly I would believe the accident was my fault. I would run to get the cat-o'-ninetails out of the closet and begin self-flagellation before driving to the hospital to sit by my friend's bedside. I would beg forgiveness for whatever bullshit reason we'd fought earlier, even if it wasn't my fault. Because I am adopted, the accident obviously means my friend is abandoning me, and I'd better shape up or my friend will die.

Seriously, I would (probably) still think the accident was my fault. I would absolutely rush to the hospital and try to be with my friend. If he or she refused to see me, I'd sit there and wait. And wait. And wait. I would pray to whatever God seemed most likely to listen at that moment. I would light a candle in the nearest Catholic church. I would remind myself that friendship is incredibly important, more important than (most) ridiculous arguments. I would ask myself if I had been an unreasonably arrogant, hard-headed Taurus earlier on in said blasted argument. I would analyze the exchange with a magnifying glass or a loupe, taking on the blame for most of it. It's really my fault, you know? Isn't it always?

Wait. Both the two situations I've described are the same. Yeah, I'm adopted. Did I mention that? Everything is my fault. Just kidding. Sort of.

I believe that adoption (for *some* adoptees, not *all*, please don't jump all over me) makes people more sensitive to discord in relationships. Things happened to us--things beyond our control--when we were babies. These things affected us profoundly. Why would these random associations stop, just because rationally they don't make sense?

Joking aside, this moral quandary is about the nature of regret. Can we say that we can live with what we've done? Have we done the best we can for ourselves and others, such that if something horrible happens to a loved one, we know that they died certain that we loved them? Was anything left unsaid: apologies, secrets, words of endearment?

I try not to have regrets. This is easier said than done, of course, but still very important. Can I look in the mirror and be satisfied, if not proud, of how I have treated others?

Having just watched the 2009 film adaptation of Dorian Gray, this mismatch between body and soul strikes a chord. A person may look beautiful on the outside, but his soul may be sullied by terrible deeds, committed with willing mind and malicious intent. I don't want to be that person. I want to feel that not only can I be redeemed, I don't walk down iniquitous paths that require redemption so much in the first place. I have to live in my skin.

P.S. If any of my friends got into an argument with me, they'd damn well better show up at the hospital after my car accident. ;-) A huge thanks to my friend N who didn't fight with me but nonetheless came and sat with me in the ED--for hours--when I had my PEs several weeks ago. She is a friend I don't deserve, but whom I love with all my heart.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Drink and Drugs

What are my thoughts on alchohol and drugs?


There is nothing wrong with enjoying a beer or a glass of wine. I have been on the occasional bender myself. I don't think it makes me a lesser person, although when I was a first year at Bryn Mawr and got drunk on a Tuesday night early in my first semester, a small group of women in my uptight orientation group decided that I need an "intervention." They got the Resident Adviser and had a come-to-Jesus meeting about my "drinking problem." If you know me well, you know how ridiculous this is. Looking back, I should have told them to fuck off. Wait! I did. Good for me.

If a person has problems drinking in moderation, that is an issue for them to sort out. But I have absolutely no problem with people enjoying moderate amounts of alcohol. A nice, cool gin and tonic with lime in a hot, summer day? Perfection.

Drugs, well, I don't have much experience with them, but I feel the same way: moderation. If people want to smoke weed to relax, fine. I think the fuss over marijuana is pretty ridiculous. It's when people start using drugs to binge and escape from reality MOST of the time that there's a problem. This isn't to diminish how hard it is for many people to deal with addiction.

My experience with drugs is limited to marijuana and my prescription narcotics. No one even offered me pot anything until I was 22, and I didn't even try any until I was 24 and ate a pot brownie. It was okay; I guess I have smoked pot maybe 10 times in my life. I do like how it relaxes you. An aside: one of my ex-boyfriends who I thought would NEVER smoke weed actually did, and bought some from the Naked Guy at Berkeley back in the dark ages. We also smoked it back in the dark ages, but I thought that was so cool. I mean, who even would have thought that the Naked Guy sold pot?

Being a person who escapes into history, I had always idealized the opium dens and prescription laudanum used by the Romantics. I told myself that if I ever was to do drugs, I wanted to do opium. Most people thought I was crazy because God forbid, I'd be on the slippery slope to heroin.

I never even had narcotics--unless I had any in the NICU--until my splenectomy, not even after giving birth. I remember taking my first Vicodin in August 2008 and thinking that the high wasn't all that great; people had been hyping it to me for years. I have moved to Oxycontin--again, horrors--while the doctors figure out what they can do to stop the terrible pain in my GI. It's been interesting to me how different doctors treat me very differently in terms of my use of narcotics for chronic pain (and I haven't even been on around-the-clock narcotics for a year yet). Some flip out and insist that I go cold turkey right now, as if I need to suffer and atone for sins. What sins? Some doctors want me to switch to methadone NOW. Some doctors flip out that I am on benzodiazepines for my anxiety, saying that Xanax is the work of the devil and that if I am anxious, I should be on Paxil--never mind the side effects and difficulty in coming off Paxil. But it isn't a controlled substance! How strange and irritating is the world when people's Puritanical prejudices are foisted onto you. Addiction and tolerance are conflated. Drugs are the elephant in the room. Always.

Again, I realize that there are people out there who abuse drugs and damage themselves and others. It happens when controlled substances are illegal, so why not make them legal and tax the hell out of them? That's what my dad says. He's a staunch liberal.

I am not quite sure. I do see what drug addictions do to mothers and babies at my job, and it isn't pretty.

Yep, sticking with moderation.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Losing My Religion

Before I start, I have to say that I called my nmom this morning to check in and let her know that I am doing better. She picked up! She spoke with me! It was fantastic. She is sick now herself, and we didn't talk for very long, but it was a thrill. We shared a few jokes about not doing housework, and she said she is very happy that my brother is coming to see me at the end of February. It was a normal, easy conversation that flowed. I would never have predicted this a year ago. It shows how important it is to keep the faith.

That was my segue into the topic of religion...

I think religion offers many people a sense of belonging and comfort in a world that often doesn't make sense. It provides a promise that there is something bigger and better at work in our lives. I know many people who are devout in their beliefs, and I envy them the security they feel as a result of believing. I am not quite so cynical to see religion purely as the opium of the masses, but Marx did have a point.

My maternal nfamily is very religious; they are conservative Episcopalians. I call it Roman Catholic Lite, although that is not the most polite way of putting it.

My aparents, by contrast, are not very religious at all. My dad was raised Lutheran, and my mother was Southern Baptist (she even worked for Billy Graham one summer she was in high school, opening prayer request letters and highlighting the important bits). After they married, they began drifting slowly towards more liberal beliefs. When I came along, they belonged to the small United Church of Christ congregation around the corner from our house. I have very few memories of this church as we left its fold when I was five, but apparently I caused quite a stir by questioning things in Sunday School. "If Adam and Eve only had sons, where did their wives come from?" "If God is watching me all the time, that is very creepy." And so on.

When I was six, my parents discovered the Ethical Society. It is a humanist organization, founded by an ex-rabbi, Felix Adler, in New York in the 19th century. Sunday meetings for the adults would focus on current events and discussions of ethical issues. Sunday School meant comparative religion. It was highly intellectual, which my parents found refreshing. For me, it meant that everything was rational rather than emotional. I lost my ability to have faith because I could see the very human machinations behind the power structures of each religion, the hypocrisy, the imperfections of so-called perfect beliefs. When I was in my 20's, I told my father that my upbringing had killed my ability to have faith in any higher power. His response? "Good. Then I did my job right."

When we lived in England, where there is no separation of Church and State, I was introduced to the beliefs of the Church of England in our weekly school assemblies and hymn practices. I was obliged as a Brownie and Girl Guide to attend church at least once a month, with my pack and troop, in full uniform for Church Parade. I took in the culture and enjoyed the hymns and parables in our vicar's sermons.

Back in St. Louis, most of my friends were Roman Catholic. Over the years I developed a fascination with Catholicism that I still hold dear. I loved going to mass and the idea of belonging to a religion that stretched back 2,000 years, to my favorite period in history. I thought First Communion dresses were ueber cool, and I loved that at confirmation you were able to pick a new name for yourself from a thick book of saints. I find the idea of confession quite comforting. I went to Mass every day that I was in Rome, and I have dragged Mark along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Both were completely transcendent experiences for me.

I have considered converting to Catholicism from time to time, but I have a huge problem in buying into a hierarchy that is obviously corrupt and misogynistic, and that protects child molesters. I don't like the Pope's stance on birth control or abortion. I don't like how women are excluded from power. Not to mention that I hate what Catholic Charities has done, and still does, to adoptees and first families.

I do have wonderful thinking Catholic friends who include Jesuit priests. I suppose I could convert and only support those bits of the religion I believe in, like some of these priests do, but that seems pretty hypocritical, also.

No other religion appeals to me, although my parents have since become Unitarian Universalists because there is no Ethical Society in the area where they live. People have suggested that I try Judaism or Buddhism, but while I respect those religions, they are not a good fit for me on a spiritual level. Deep, deep inside of me I am Catholic--I couldn't be anything else, but I am not quite at the point where I can jump off the cliff of skepticism into belief.

I don't like what people do in the name of religion--start wars, claim that Jesus/God/Allah loves their country best and most, suppress and kill non-believers, take babies from their mothers, claim that the poor are undeserving drains on society, i.e., not truly uphold the tenets (compassion, forgiveness, etc.) of the religion they espouse.

I hate how religion gets tied into politics, that is. "If you are a true believer, you will vote this way, support this war/cause." As in the debacle of California's Proposition 8, bankrolled by the Church of Latter Day Saints. The Crusades. Our current war in Afghanistan. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Yuck.

I abhor entitlement, no matter how it is packaged.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Truth for Day Eighteen

Gay marriage.

My thoughts on this topic can be summed up by "Yes." There are many ways to form families, and if people want to get married--go for it. Consenting adults are consenting adults.

Just as I don't feel it's appropriate for society at large to tell me that I don't deserve to have my original birth certificate, I don't feel it's appropriate to tell people they cannot marry, based on their sexual orientation.

I do live in the San Francisco Bay Area, drink lattes, and read The New York Times.

I remember a time when I did not, and when I had some serious homophobia to battle within myself. I am thankful for the patience and guidance of my friends, gay and otherwise, in my steps along that hard route.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A book that changed my views about something

My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.
----Edward Said

The book that has most profoundly changed my views is Edward Said's Orientalism. I know it's an old chestnut, and it's been shredded and reviewed and critiqued to death. It remains, however, very powerful and meaningful to me.

I read it for the first time my senior year in college. At that time I was young and naive, a middle-class white girl who thought that society should be colorblind. I could be colorblind, or think I was, because I belonged to a protected segment of society. I have been the recipient of privilege based on my skin color and social class.

Said pushed me to see that my beliefs were rooted in fallacies stretching back hundreds, even thousands, of years. Painted broadly, Said's argument is that Western society judges people of different ethnicities and backgrounds against what Western society holds to be important. We cast non-Western, and people of color, as Other, and lesser, compared with dominant white notions of what is right and proper. Although we are now in the Post-Colonial age, many of the cruel prejudices of Colonialism remain sadly with us.

I realized that yes, I am far from colorblind. My whole position of privilege is based in racist ideals. I knew that I was at a disadvantage where it came to white males, but I didn't see until twenty years  ago that even the feminist movement is controlled, in large part, by white concerns.

The blinders came off, and I have been a much better person for it. Said broadened my worldview and made me self-critical in important ways. I have many friends who belong to racial, ethnic, and other minorities in this country, and they have all helped me deepen my understanding of what I have been able to take for granted, and to commit to speaking out to make change.

I am a better friend, thinker, and patient advocate for having thought long and hard about Said's words. I am also an Other, for having been adopted. I stand apart and belong to a minority, albeit a relatively invisible minority, of two million Americans. We are often derided for not being grateful for what society has deemed us worthy to receive, and told in a condescending way that we don't deserve better because we come from "bad stock" who couldn't take care of us. We are "lucky" to have had a chance to live at all. We should be thanking God that we weren't aborted; certainly our first mothers would have preferred that, or the dumpster.

Why do people think it's okay to say any of this to us, as though we are lesser human beings? I can only hope that things will change as more of us speak out.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Something or someone I can live without

My answer to this, having mulled it over, is very similar to the entries in which I talked about the person who has treated me like shit and the people who make life difficult (bullies, frenemies, etc.).

But in the spirit of uncomfortable truth, I can elaborate on someone else, someone who is a fine person on her own, but who wants me to give her more than I am able.

Back in another one of my past incarnations, I worked with dogs. I volunteered at a shelter and was told that I have a talent for dealing with animals. Fair enough. I trained shelter dogs to have good manners so that they'd more easily find a home. Then a big-time dog trainer named Ian Dunbar, who lives in Berkeley, set up a program at the Berkeley Humane Society, where I was volunteering. Soon I found myself teaching puppy Kindergarten classes two nights a week. It was fun; I liked the puppies and families, and I felt good knowing that I was helping these dogs stay in their homes.

One family came with their puppy, a mother, father, and young twenty-something daughter, whom I'll call Chloe. They were lively and friendly. The daughter was not quite all there; I sensed some lack of social awareness in her pushiness, but I was all about being pushed around back then. Seriously pushed around. The puppy class office gave her my telephone number, and before long, she was calling me four times a day. I didn't have the heart to tell her I was too busy to talk. I knew things were not quite right when she asked me to come spend the night. I was 34, pregnant and married, not 12. Her mother finally told me that she had a learning disability, but that she had the cognition of an 18-year-old. Over the next three and a half years, it became evident that her issues ran much deeper than that. We would set up dates for her to help me with my kids, and she'd not show up or not be home when I called. I was being stretched to my limit by the four to five phone calls a day, usually about nothing. I sensed how desperately this young woman wanted a friend, but it was more and more evident to me that I could not be that friend. Her mom encouraged me to let her babysit my elder son. I thought this meant the mom and daughter would do it together, but once I came over to pick him up and I saw him through the window, playing alone in his Pack-n-Play downstairs, with Chloe nowhere to be seen. I rang the doorbell, she didn't come. I called her phone, she didn't come. Finally, I knocked as loudly as I could. She had been upstairs in her room with headphones on.

That's when I realized that I was taking care of this woman's feelings--giving her a job, making her part of my life--at the price of endangering my son. Enough was enough, even with my terrible self-esteem.

I decided that we could get together for meals, but she canceled on me again at the last minute one day. That was it. I told her that I couldn't continue with our friendship, that I had so little time in my day with two small children I didn't have time for five phone calls or trips to go pick her up when she wasn't there. I realized, deep in myself, that I was letting this woman BULLY me in to a friendship. How sad for both of us. She didn't take what I said well at all. We still live in the same town, and she still wants to try. She would friend me on Facebook all the time, and I'd ignore her. The first time, I gave her a careful, polite response and told her why (not that I think she has the cognitive development to understand it, truthfully). I finally had to block her.

She still adds my husband about once a week, but he doesn't have the heart to ignore her. That's his business, I suppose.

While I see that she doesn't have many friends, and that it must be very hard to be developmentally disabled with a mental age of 12, it's not my job to take care of her. I feel for her, honestly I do, but I can really, really, really live just fine without her.

It makes me feel more than a little bit terrible deep inside to think that I let her down--she just cannot understand boundaries. I can't blame someone for something that lies beyond their capability, right? But I tried as hard as I could to be her friend for three and a half years, and I was worn down. My life is very messy and complicated, and she, moreover, lives in a family that espouses racist and homophobic ideas, two things that I abhor. I felt like I couldn't be myself around her, and that was WORK.

Some people are blessed with what it takes to work with special needs people. I am not one of those, and to be completely and brutally truthful, I would have aborted either of my sons if tests had indicated that they had Down Syndrome. I don't necessarily like this about myself, but I know what my limits are in terms of patience and strength. I would make a terrible parent for a child with Down Syndrome, and my husband felt the same way about himself.


My sister-in-law just texted me to say that she has bought my brother his plane ticket to come visit me the last weekend in February. I am afraid to believe it will actually happen, but I want it with all I've got. I haven't seen him since December of 2009, and in the meantime he's had some life-changing events, including going to Afghanistan to manage the medical staff at Camp Leatherneck. It sucked to see his name in press releases all over the place and not be able to tell him that I was proud. So much since May has sucked.

It would be great if we can work together to rebuild our relationship. I know that he is worried that I am still angry with him and that my family won't accept him. He doesn't know me well enough to trust that I love him no matter what, or that my family believes in forgiveness. I want to change that, but first he has to believe in us. Our upbringings were very different, so despite our being similar in many ways, we work from expectations and foundations that aren't necessarily the same.

Sometimes it's hard to be patient and accept that I don't have control over anything except myself.

I will try not to think about this too much. Yeah, right.

What is your favorite work of art?

I have spent too much time over the past week embroiled in debates and combatting the "bitter" brigade. I want to talk about something fun for a minute. My posting about what I couldn't live without led me to books, which led me to think about my art books, and on to John Singer Sargent. Inevitably.

Did you know that Oscar Wilde modeled the character of Basil Hallward in The Picture of Dorian Gray after Sargent? No, probably not. Stuff like this enchants me, though. And of course when I get into thinking about Sargent, I sigh because the past two times I have been at the Met in New York, Madame X has been on loan or locked away in conservation.

I do love Madame X and could look at her for hours on end. But she isn't my favorite Sargent painting.

Neither is this one, although between 1987 and 1991 I used to drink coffee and eat doughnuts at 10 a.m. in Thomas Great Hall, underneath M. Carey Thomas's direct, steely gaze. They have her locked away in the Rare Book Room in the library at Bryn Mawr now. The Great Hall seems incomplete without her.

I fell in love with Lady Agnew of Lochnaw in 1990                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   when I was traipsing through the National Gallery of Scotland. She always struck me as a woman I'd like to know, on many different levels. I would make a pilgrimage to see her yearly, if not monthly, when I was in my 20's. I haven't seen her in person for probably 15 years. Too long.

Did you know that Sargent painted Tilda Swinton's ancestors, who are titled Scottish people? And very beautiful ones, unsurprisingly.

My favorite Sargent portrait, however, is his wonderfully over-the-top rendering of the actress Ellen Terry (great-aunt to Sir John Gielgud) as Lady Macbeth cum femme fatale. The dress with its iridescent beetle wings is to die for (someone actually wrote a dissertation about it), and her wild gaze and sickly pale skin are mesmerizing. Now this is a woman you shouldn't fuck with.

I would like to ask my readers to share their favorite works of art, architecture, or visual culture with me, if you're game. I really enjoy hearing about what inspires or soothes people, and why you like it (if you can figure that out).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Something or someone I can't live without

Chocolate? Birthday cake? Animals? Hawaii? Sleep? A very hard question.

I think that the material object I cannot live without is a book. I cannot imagine not having access to other people's thoughts, whether poems or prose. I couldn't live without the joy I feel when I get a view into another world, or have my mind stretched by new ideas. I love the feel of a book in my hands, the smell of the paper, the pleasure of turning pages.

I am deeply horrified, yes, in a Luddite sort of way, by e-readers. I can't cuddle with a screen, no matter how handy it is. Yes, I would have access to far more books if I read them that way, but I like having my living room ringed with bookcases filled to overflowing with the volumes I've collected over the years. I have the tiny hardback edition of The House at Pooh Corner that my aunt and uncle gave me on their first visit to see me, back in 1969. I have my stash of boarding school fiction and horse stories from my English childhood; when I feel alienated from everything else in life, I can go pick up The Horse from Black Loch and escape into the Highlands but also into myself, back when I was nine. I can remember the smell of the air in my bedroom in our house in England and the quality of the light as I hid away from chores and other cares. I have shelves packed with the classics I read in high school: one shelf of Greek philosophy, one shelf of Russian literature (I remember the sheer joy of being introduced to Chekhov), one shelf of German literature (reading Kafka and Mann my junior year of high school was a revelation), and a dozen shelves filled with other usual suspects (Shakespeare, Wordsworth, the Brontes, James, Wharton, Woolf, Auden, and so on). Then there is my collection of art history tomes, from survey books I had to buy as a freshwoman at Bryn Mawr to specialist volumes on everything from Egypt, Greece, and Rome, late antiquity to Gothic England, and on to Holbein, Van Dyck, Hogarth, the Pre-Raphaelites, Alma-Tadema, Whistler, and oh, Sargent, Sargent, Sargent, as well as history of architecture and design, and theory. It is sad that my husband has banished at least 1, 000 more of my books to exile in the garage. He claims there isn't room, but it all depends on how one defines "room" and whether floor-to-ceiling bookcases are part of one's aesthetic.

As far as people I cannot live without--I haven't tried to live without my parents, nor do I wish to. At this point, I cannot imagine living without my husband, although the idea is tempting from time to time. My children help show me the good in life, even when they drive me to insanity. Losing them would destroy me, or come very close to it. Then there are my friends, those special people who help me see beyond the cracks in the surface of myself and keep me grounded. I need the people who have known me forever as much as the people I have met recently: from Maria and Chris, who grew up beside me; to Shona, Tim, and Matthew in England; to Heather, Wendy, and Joe who saw me through high school; to Stacey and Rachel who made Bryn Mawr the great experience it was; to Thomenon and Gale, the only people in graduate school with kindness AND great senses of humor; to Katie and Chris, who helped me survive nursing school; and at least a hundred others whom I love. In addition, my adoptee community has meant the difference between self-hatred and celebration: thank you to Linda, Joy, Mia, Jeni, Liz, Laura, Zack, Melissa, Alisha, Krista, Lori A and Lori C, Becky...the list is very, very long. I need ALL of you. And most importantly, my sister from another mother, Nalini, who from the minute we met has understood me intuitively, from the good parts to the darkest recesses of yuck, and loves me anyway.

I really do love my dog, and don't want to be without him, either. He loves me so very unconditionally, except when he feels that I am infringing in his space on my bed.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


A few days ago I bought an anthology of poetry, called The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

I was reading through it with Callum last night, and found a poem by Thomas Hardy that made my adoptee heart heavy. I feel fortunate to know about my maternal first family now, although my nfather's family remains a mystery. C says she absolutely cannot remember anything about him. I have other adoptee friends who know both their parents, and others who know nothing of their heritage, and sadly probably never will. It really sucks to be amputated from the lineage that civilians take for granted, the same lineage that Hardy extolled. I have heard it called genetic bewilderment, and it is difficult to live with--at least for me.


I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on, 
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.

The years-heired feature that can
In curve and voice and eye
Despise the human span
Of durance--that is I;
The eternal thing in man, 
That heeds no call to die.

Thomas Hardy

Letter to Nancy Verrier

Write a letter to a hero who has let you down.

Dear Nancy,

I have read The Primal Wound several times and agree with many of your conclusions--at least as they apply to my own feelings and adoption. That said, I left our meeting feeling confused and upset. I had hoped that we would spend our time together getting to know the particulars of my life so that we could build on that knowledge and try to help me develop better coping mechanisms. Instead, our conversation seemed awkward, disjointed, and based on following the script of your book.

Upon reflection, I realized that whenever I said something about myself, you related it to your daughter, whose own experience is almost diametrically opposed to mine. For example, when I said that I am the "quiet, complacent" type of adoptee, you said "That's too bad," and that your daughter was not, and had never been. I am glad for her, but that information is not immediately relevant to me. You also said that seeing your daughter with her first mother was eye-opening to you because of things you saw that connected them. I have felt a similar, odd sense of familiarity when meeting my half-brother, but you didn't ask about my own meeting, merely elaborated on your daughter's experience. I was truly bewildered, moreover, when you warned me not to sabotage my relationship with my brother. That's why I asked, "How would I do that?" My relationship problems come not with pushing away, but with not letting go. I wouldn't reject my brother, EVER--and believe me, I have been tested on this; rather, I might call him too often or be too needy. But actually, I feel pretty secure with him right now. Nor did I ask my first mother "permission" to contact him, as you said I should have. If I had, I would have lost him: if she had told him first about me, he said that he would have respected her wishes to keep me an alienated secret. I am glad that I chose not to be complacent and agreeable at that particular moment, and not to suppress my needs to put hers first. Especially when she couldn't respond to letters, phone calls, or anything communication from me for 10 years.

In sum, I felt as though instead of setting the foundations of a therapeutic relationship, your assessment of my situation directly ignored the very core of *my* concerns and immediate needs. My most painful emotional trigger is being unheard and dismissed, and sadly, that's how I felt in our session together. Not all adoptees are the same, and while I might wish to have been more outspoken and devil-may-care throughout my life, that's just not who I am. 


Friday, January 21, 2011

Letter to Mary Gauthier

Write a letter to a band or artist that has helped you through some tough days.

Dear Mary,

I remember seeing one of your first albums reviewed in the newspaper about 10 years ago. It mentioned that you were adopted and sang about it. I was intrigued because back then, I didn't know all that many adoptees who were willing to speak out openly about how they felt--especially if they felt pain. I bought Filth and Fire and loved the words of "Good-Bye." Your words helped me feel that I wasn't alone.

Last winter I saw you in Berkeley when you were touring to promote your new album, The Foundling. I wept and shook inside as your narrative unfolded. It was all too familiar. After the concert, we spoke for a few minutes. I told you about my recent search, reunion with my brother, and my my first mother's rejection of me. You hugged me and told me that I am not alone. We laughed about how we should have "Ungrateful Bastard" t-shirts. I was glad I went to the concert with a group of adoptee friends so that we could share the experience and talk about how powerful and affecting your words can be.

Then last summer, as I drove two hours across Indiana to visit the graves of some of my first family, I listened to The Foundling, over and over. I heard you sing to the infant you once were, left at the orphanage, crying for your mother. I heard you struggle with not belonging, with wanting to find the people whose blood ran through your veins, with talking with your mother who said hello and goodbye all at once, with coming to terms with a loss that will always be part of you. 

Your lyrics are difficult and cathartic. Sometimes they hit very hard and directly enough to be like blows on my heart. You are brilliant and brave for laying yourself bare. Thank you for sharing something so raw.

In admiration and solidarity,

Thursday, January 20, 2011


My next truth is to talk about something I am never complimented on. I take this to mean something I wish I were complimented on, but am not.

There are many things for which I would never get compliments, simply because I suck at them: housekeeping, cooking, keeping my desk tidy, having style in house decorating and dress, starting IVs, etc. Then there are the hidden things that just aren't worth mentioning, such as driving a car. I think I do it well, and my parents have said so on occasion--especially driving a car with manual transmission. Thanks, Dad, by the way, for teaching me to do that!

If I am honest with myself, though, I always wanted to be the pretty girl and complimented on my looks (but also smart--not dumb and pretty). Classically pretty girls seemed to get a free pass for a lot of stuff, and also got their foot in the door for interviews and fellowships more easily in graduate school. I have a really beautiful blonde friend, whom I love; this is no indictment of her. When we were growing up together, guys would be friends with me to get to close to her. For YEARS this happened. I was the ugly chick with the hot friend. A pack of men at my private high school dated or wanted to date her, and one of them in particular wrote in my senior yearbook that I was important to him because I had introduced him to this friend. Nice.

I was called many names, the most memorable, painful, and lasting being "Moose"--I can credit Clay Bratton for that one, and looking back, I bet that vertically challenged man was threatened by my Amazonian stature. Moreover, my petite, red-haired, fair Irish-Scottish mother had no idea how to help me with my wild, wavy hair; thick, dark eyebrows; hairy upper lip--you get the picture. It was way into high school that one of my friends pulled me aside and showed me the tricks of the trade that she herself used. I am now very well groomed. (Thank you forever, Tory!) I am also not small and frail, but very tall, athletic, and robust.

I am definitely not the American feminine "ideal," and I used to beat myself up for that when I was growing up because that's pretty much all that mattered in the Midwest. Fit in! Fit in! Or be destroyed. I know that's pretty much what happens to teens everywhere in the U.S., but it was far more prevalent in St. Louis than I had ever experienced in England. I had some very wonderful English boyfriends over the years--and one half-Englishman--who never said word one about how I looked. They loved me just as I was, and I loved them all the more for it. My German husband is the same way, except in the early days of our relationship when he tried to be the food police. He has an eating disorder, and I, for one, am not going to let him put it onto me. I tore him a new one for that, and it's been smooth sailing on that topic ever since. ;-)

The good news is that I believe that I have turned from an ugly duckling into a nice-looking fortysomething duck, if not a swan. My recent illnesses have made me very slim. My hair is long and wavy. I have always loved my large, dark eyes with long, dark eyelashes; I have never needed mascara. I have a pretty awesome wardrobe these days. Men other than my husband say that I am attractive now, although I don't like to believe them. Funny how self-image is a very hard thing to erase.

I still wish, though, that I could be the double threat of gorgeous and brilliant.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Silence = no harm? Seriously?

Blogland is a treacherous place. I have read things I wish I hadn't. Things that made me seriously angry. Sometimes I comment, and sometimes I don't. 

I have recently commented on several prospective adoptive parent blogs that made tired accusations about how all "birth" mothers are crack whores and unworthy to raise their children, and how adoptees who express reservations about the institution of adoption are "bitter" because they had lousy childhoods and "bad lives." And thus the rights and feelings of first mothers and adoptees are neatly demolished, in one fell swoop. 

On the one hand, I do not fall into the lousy childhoods and "bad lives" category. I love my aparents with all my heart, and they have cared for me unconditionally since they brought me home when I was 10 weeks old. They have been, and continue to be, generous and loving. I had lots of material and emotional benefits in my youth--including the pony. I wouldn't say that my negative feelings about adoption arise from bitterness and anger, but rather from a mature perspective that allows me to see the institution of adoption as seriously flawed by secrets and lies and the buried needs of the child. Too many people I know have been hurt for me to say, "Oh! Adoption is great for everyone. No worries. First mothers, you children will thank you for giving them a better life! Adoptive parents, your children will thank you for your selflessness in taking them in! Adoptees, what's that you say about feeling sad? There's no trauma. There is no evidence that adoptees feel trauma at all. Please, be rational and see that what you feel is just adult disappointment that you're projecting backward onto that happy little baby that once was you. Someday you'll be as happy as I am. And if you're not, shut the fuck up." 

I can stand up as a "success" story, if that's what they want to see. As I told Dr. Brodzinsky once (and he agreed), I am a poster child for adoption, unless you hear me talk about the intense feelings of loss that have been inside me these 41 years. Then the people who want the rosy view stop listening to me and go back to their refrain, "Poor thing. If only she could be more grateful for the wonderful life her parents gave her. It's too bad she has so much negativity inside her. She isn't entitled to any opinion that is negative, anyway. Adoptees should put up and shut up." Or "She is speaking for a child, when she is an adult. She doesn't know what she felt then. She must have been a happy child with such emotional and material bounty; adoptees only feel sad when they know there is loss, and it takes verbal skills and maturity to process that." And thus I am told what I feel and when I am allowed to feel it. As though I were born yesterday as an adult. Poor C, if that were the case.

Then again, I think it sucks that any adoptees would be dismissed as "bitter" because they did not have a perfect life experience. Who does? Why should feelings have to be qualified? How a person feels is how he or she feels. No one should have to pull out a lengthy, "worthy" personal narrative to justify what they say they feel inside.

I learned recently about a disgusting phenomenon called "practice babies," in which orphans and prospective adoptees were farmed out as infants to home economics classes at universities around the U.S. Students could practice mothering skills on these "motherless" infants, managing them alongside other day-to-day domestic skills. Human babies were basically part of the furniture, and there might be a different caregiver present every time a baby woke up. I can imagine that such an experience might cause a baby to be emotionally disorganized and have difficulty attaching to any one person. 

I was born in a year in which there were still "practice babies" around, although I rather doubt I was part of such a program. But the idea of it sends chills down my spine. I know myself well, as does my mother. We were talking about this the other morning and were in agreement about how this would have been a very bad fit for my very anxious personality, whether my anxieties stem from my not having a primary caretaker for my first 10 weeks of life, from being hardwired to be anxious, or from losing my first mother at birth. Or all three. There isn't enough evidence to say--or so I am told. 

I greatly respect the first mothers who run Birth Mother, First Mother Forum, one of my favorite adoption-related blogs, and Jane, one of the blog owners, posted over the weekend about the "practice babies". I commented that I thought the use of "practice babies" was damaging on many levels, and that I feel great compassion for those people who know--or don't--that they were part of that grand experiment in teaching. I also said:

"I know that some psychologists believe that it doesn't matter what happens to infants because once they get a consistent caregiver, they'll be fine. I don't subscribe to that view, but some of these babies weren't placed for over a year. How could they possibly attach to anyone when their "pretend" mothers could rotate daily, weekly, monthly?" [emphasis added here]

I included that paragraph because I have engaged in debate before with a psychologist who holds that infants don't really favor particular caregivers until they are at least six months old, when they begin to exhibit signs of attachment. I believe, to the contrary, that while neonates may not display empirical signs of attachment earlier than six months, they do recognize people quickly, especially their mothers. I also know from research I did related to my work as an L&D RN that parental recognition is not a scientific impossibility (for examples off the top of my head, see DeCasper and Fifer, 1980; Bushnell, 2001). I also see connections between mother and infant anecdotally every day that I work on the unit. In the trenches, so to speak. Practical experience. Not reviewing other people's work. Observing babies want their mothers.

I was pressed by a commenter to name any psychologist who believed such a thing as infants not preferring any particular caregiver, and I named the one with whom I had debated last October: 

"Dr. X would be one psychologist who argues that adopted children are unaffected by early experiences, even those involving lack of attachment and social deprivation."

It was a trap! I was then told that I was off base and quite wrong about what the good doctor believed, and that my arrogance was "rich, even for you."

The good doctor even replied herself:

"I have to offer a correction. I've certainly never said that disruption of attachment or social deprivation had no ill effects. What I did say was that attachment is not already in place at the time of birth. Instead, it develops gradually if the baby has a consistent, interactive caregiver, and becomes evident some time after 6 months of age, but usually before 12 months."

Imagine, then, my surprise when the good doctor wrote a blog post yesterday in which she said:

"A lot of concern is being expressed on various blogs about the history of “practice babies”, as described in Lisa Grunwald’s novel The Irresistible Henry House. Those babies, as probably everyone knows by now, were orphans who were cared for by “domestic science” students in colleges and who had many caregivers, in most cases before going to an adoptive family. The “practice babies” usually experienced multiple caregivers during the second half of their first year, a period of time that is associated with the development of attachment behaviors and which might be a time of vulnerability for emotional development.

However, there seems to be no obvious evidence that these children, who had also had multiple caregivers in their orphanages, were emotionally disturbed later in their lives. (Of course, it may well be that there is no such evidence because no one has looked for it, but it seems to me rather likely that adoptive parents would have complained if the babies they received were troubled, and that attention would have been called to the situation. Maybe not, though.)"

Isn't that exactly what I said that she would say--no evidence, no harm, no foul? That some psychologists believe that there is no evidence that a lack of primary caregivers causes problems later on? That once a child is in a stable home, the past is entirely mitigated--because there is no evidence otherwise?

But do you really believe that adoptive parents would have 1. KNOWN their child had been used in a science experiment, given the widespread programs of secrets and lies associated with closed adoption; and 2. THOUGHT that there was a place to register complaint that their "product" was defective? As a dear friend said to me, is there a Better Business Bureau of Adopted Brats that we are unaware of? 

As I understand it, many of the practice babies aren't even aware of their past histories. How could they be tracked and followed for longitudinal research on attachment and relationships if they aren't  identified? Isn't it rather premature to say that silence on the topic = no damage to the people who were once those babies? Just because none of them are serial killers doesn't make them "fine."

I know that I am inviting a firestorm onto my head with this post, but I am hoping that some of my non-adoptee, very smart friends will weigh in, as well as my fellow adoptlings and the people I expect to tell me kindly to go fuck myself.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Today's topic is to discuss something that others tell me I do well. Easy. I write.

My ability to express myself seems innate. I have always been good at writing, but I have also had a long apprenticeship, as I have mentioned before.

I read, and reading helps to introduce you to different styles of writing, as well as new vocabulary. One good thing my horrific adviser did was to tell me to subscribe to The New Yorker to improve myself. I have now subscribed for nearly 20 years, and I can always find elegant turns of phrase and delicious egg-head words in it. Reading is a healthy addiction.

I write regularly, and always have. Practice is where I stretch my wings, make mistakes, erase and start again. I have done this privately in a journal, in drafts of academic papers, and in letters, sent and unsent. I bemoan the trend toward sloppiness that e-mail and texting has engendered. I often post blog entries without proper proofreading (THE HORROR!), but I have learned that it is fine to go back and fix things. I needn't have a heart attack when I discover my errors. I am only human, after all.

I have had a rigorous schooling in English grammar and usage. When I was a schoolgirl in England, we would have intense weekly lessons in the parts of speech. For the year-end English exam when I was eleven, we had to memorize a whole book's worth of grammar, First Aid in English. I remember that my family was in the Hague while my dad had meetings with cartographers from other NATO countries, and I, ever the good student, was diligently working away at grammar exercises. My parents went out one night, and a local teen-age girl babysat me in the hotel. My parents thought my grammar book belonged to her, and left it in the hotel for her to pick up. I about lost it when I found out the next day, after we'd moved on to Amsterdam--all the valuable study time my idiot parents had cost me! I was irate for days.

In seventh grade I learned to diagram sentences, the equivalent of gross anatomy class for writers. When you understand how things are put together, you can see more quickly and clearly where words, sentences, or paragraphs need to be tweaked and adjusted. Sometimes when I am trying to muddle through one of Henry James's late works and am stuck in the mud of one his endless sentences, I will cut through all the florid description and look simply for the subject and verb, then build it up from there.

When I went to high school, I had to do a daily writing exercise called "Outside Reading" or "O.R." In the morning English class we would be assigned 15 to 25 pages of whatever book we were reading, and we'd have to write a grammatically correct synopsis of those pages in 30 words or less, to be handed in by 1 p.m. Any lapses in grammar would be duly marked in red by our teachers, and we were required to make corrections and resubmit the O.R. before the end of the day. I usually got things right the first time, but there were occasions when I didn't.

Over the years I have studied many different languages, which have their own flow and vocabularies; this knowledge informs the way in which I use English. I love words that I've picked up from Irish, particularly "craic." I still read very regularly in French and have found writers, such as Camus and Duras, to whom I return again and again, enchanted by the deceivingly simple way in which they communicate very complex ideas. After learning Greek and Latin, I could see ways in which the Classical world still inflects our ways of communication.

I have worked, and continue to work, as an editor. I can go in with a surgical eye and see quickly where arguments can be tightened and made lucid. I was a technical editor in Silicon Valley during the Internet boom at the end of the millenium and made a bundle while working alongside people even more exacting than I. The Chicago Manual and Elements of Style are on my desk, within easy reach.

I have had some truly gifted writers as friends who have shared their advice and beautiful prose with me. One of my exes is an academic and a professor of linguistics; I met him when he was writing his Ph.D. at Cambridge. Andrew was educated at one of the most prestigious boarding schools in England, went to Cambridge as an undergraduate to get degrees in French and German, and then decided to change to finish his Bachelor's in English. He wrote a brilliant undergraduate thesis on James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, which is no small feat for a 21-year-old. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis about a 19th-century grammarian of Norwegian and the politics of language and nationalism. He is fluent in five languages and has published prolifically. From the first, I was awed by his command of English--and not just because he's English. He could draw from a vocabulary light years beyond mine, and he wrote me the best letters I've ever received. I remember trying so very hard to impress him with my writing and making a muck of it on more than one occasion, but he is also blessed with a big heart and kind sense of humor. He never made fun of me for my mistakes--or at least not for long. When I write for people, he is my ideal audience, and still one of the people I hope to please.

There are very few things for which I accept compliments, but writing is one of them. I suppose it is something over which I have control, and something that I also think I do well. My writing is part of me, and yet separate enough that when people attack what I've said, I don't take it as personally as I would if they were savaging my appearance or character.

Now if only I could get my act together and write that book! People have been giving me wickedly great ideas for chapter headings, and my life is certainly much, much more dramatic and salacious than some soap operas. Really. Then again, laying myself bare is something quite dangerous. Ah, those adoption issues...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Someone I need to let go

I have sat with this idea for a day or two. I know all about not wanting to let go, but I have recently been very successful in not hanging on to people who torment me. I brainstormed with different friends, and they agreed with me that--at the moment--I am not pathologically entwined with anyone.

Six months ago, I might have thought that I needed to let go of C for my own sanity. I am glad that I didn't. The emotional payoffs have been huge recently. She even called me back to find out how I was doing when I was in the hospital. She makes me laugh. I really like her, and as she said to me, learning about each other as friends takes a lot of pressure off. I can tell that she cares more about me than someone she met in the grocery store, although if that is what she needs to picture me as for now, so be it.

Five years ago, I would have said that I needed to let go of the person I wrote about yesterday. I have.

A year ago, I would have said that I needed to let go of someone else who affected me deeply on an emotional level. I have.

Ten years ago, Thomenon told me to rid my life of the people from graduate school who were happy to ridicule me and act like high school bitches. The people who were snide, or who maliciously said, "One day you'll be as happy as I am." Ugh. They're gone. Finally.

Even in graduate school I knew that I had to find a way never to let my adviser have anything to do with my life, ever again. Check.

Fifteen years ago, I used to have dreams of returning to St. Louis to show my bullies that I was a success and very happy despite what they had done to me. Then I realized that the battle was all going on inside my head, and that I was only hurting myself. So I let go.

I am so glad that I have arrived at a point where I am no longer hanging on to people who have harmed or have potential to harm me. I have healthy boundaries, although I sometimes feel unsure about putting them up. Guilty, almost. Still, it is better to protect myself than deal with the garbage that all too many people are willing to throw onto me. They don't have to like me, or vice versa. All that I ask is that there be a basic level of civility between adults.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Someone I didn't want to let go

There are probably only two real candidates for today's post about not wanting to let go, but one person affected me longer and more profoundly. I have managed to let him go, but it took me a very, very long time. Five years ago--when I still wasn't exactly over him--I wrote a letter to him that I never planned to share, and in the course of writing the letter, I discovered that instead of our on-and-off relationship being poisoned by conflict between us, it was more affected by me not being ready to let go of something in myself, or more accurately, part of myself.

This man may stumble upon my blog, although I hope he doesn't. If he does, I encourage him not read what I say in too flattering a light. As he knows, I was young and very sad then, and I really did care for him with pretty much all I had. He was a good guy (mostly), but not worth all the angst I put into imagining that my life would be perfect with him in it.

Here is the letter.

I have long wrestled with my feelings for you. I want to tell you why things were so odd and complicated on my end, and I have struggled to figure out why our being together never worked out well.

We met when we were six. My memories of this are mostly faded now. I remember sharing a friendly rivalry about who was taller, and that you were incensed that Mrs. Scott measured me once when I was wearing my Easter sandals. I remember competing with you in spelling test scores. Mrs. Scott had our names on the wall, and we'd receive a star for each test on which we scored 100%. You and I were tied for first place for quite a long time, but then you missed a word. I was thrilled to surge ahead, but found myself tied with you again not long after when I unbelievably forgot the "r" in "first." Most of all, I remember that you asked me to marry you one day. I went home to ask my father, and he said that we could get married when we were 22 and out of college. I came back the next day, reported the news, and we were happy.

The next year we were in different classes. You decided that I was "uncool" and distanced yourself from me. I was sad, but it was not heartbreaking. I was too young and distracted by Barbies and Brownies and ballet. 

The next year I moved to England. There I found myself in an alien environment, but I soon settled in. One of my classmates was a boy named Simon, a near clone of you in looks and interests. Over the next three years, Simon and I went through various stages of "liking" each other and "going out," in as much as elementary-school-age children understand such relationships. 

Before I knew it, it was time for my family to return to St. Louis. I was once again ripped from what I knew; I lost my social stability. I was not English but in many ways had become more English than American. 

The return was traumatic. My family moved back into our old house. The neighbors were the same. I, on the other hand, was indelibly not the same. One day in August of 1980, my mother took me to school to enroll me. We were walking down the sixth-grade hallway, and lists of students' names were already outside classroom doors. I saw many familiar names, but my heart skipped a beat when I saw yours. Mrs. Stuckmeyer happened to be in her classroom and came out to see if my mother and I needed help. My mother explained our situation, and we went on to the Principal's office. I hoped beyond hope that I would be in your class; somehow your name was comforting to me in a world that had become foreign. Meanwhile, Mrs. Stuckmeyer decided that she wanted the "English" girl in her classroom, and so it was. 

Socially, this time in my life could probably not have been much of a bigger disaster. There was incredibly painful adjustment as I found myself firmly relegated to the bottom of the food chain. That aside, I did manage to make some good friends. I remember in the first few days of the fall semester Parisa asked me if you and I were "going out." I had no idea where this rumor started--certainly I hadn't said anything, but maybe my transparent attention to you had triggered it. I doubt it came from anything you said. I simply remember smiling to myself when I saw you each day because I so wanted the rumor to be true. 

I knew nothing about you except what I remembered and what I was able to glean (your being an excellent soccer player, for example). I thought you were crazy but brave for wearing shorts in the Midwestern winter, and I remember two of your t-shirts from that year. You seemed to avoid me most of the time, but somehow in the vacuum of not knowing you, I created an ideal version of you in my head. I imagined that the ideal you, like I, wanted to get out of St. Louis to explore the world. I imagined that if you took the time to know me, you would appreciate things in me that others didn't understand. When I did get the occasional chance to talk to you, I was overwhelmed and awkward because I was too immature to see the difference between the you in my head and the you in front of me. I know that you found me very intense. 

I was forever optimistic about getting to know you because I believed that over time you would like me for who I was. I couldn't accept that your regard for me was beyond my control, or if I did think that way, I chose to repress it. I can say that I was terribly unhappy that year and desperate for someone in whom to confide. I wanted you to be that person. I sincerely believed that you would never intentionally hurt me. The strangeness of this, as I see it now, is that I never really had the chance--and perhaps didn't want--to know the real you.

My daydreams along this line went on for years, and the compassion of my imagined you became ever more elaborate. I became feverishly attached to this phantom as my great unhappiness with life in general took root. Over the years, my friends were alternately stymied, amused, and disgusted by my single-minded faith in and defense of you. I retrospect I can see how you must have been thoroughly put off by my presumptuousness, and I do not blame you in the slightest for wanting to steer clear of me. Although there was definitely some cruelty on your part that could have been avoided, you apologized for it when we were young adults.

The academic year of 1984-85 marked the nadir of my teen-age mental health. You saw a fragment of the depths, and I am sorry now to have involved you. That was when I began to verbalize my suicidal ideation. We actually dated that year, and the time we were together was short but significant to me. You could be very kind, but also cruel. I ceded you way too much power, and you used it to manipulate me and play with my feelings. I could always overlook what you did because despite it all, I had my ideal. It also didn't hurt in the slightest that you were exactly what I found handsome: very tall, dark hair, green eyes, athletic.

Late in the spring, several months after we'd broken up, I was very ill with mono and you came to visit me and help relieve my boredom. We were making an honest attempt to be friends. I was grateful that you were so supportive. I wrote to you from England that summer, as well, not really expecting anything, but I had the most pleasant surprise when you wrote back. My father picked up the mail one morning and gave me your letter when we were on the train to London. I read your letter at least 25 times that day. I thought we had turned a corner. But when I returned to the States and contacted you, you completely withdrew once more, without a word.

That fall I started at a private high school right down the road from yours. I slowly and gingerly began to build myself a new identity while finding positive reinforcement--at last--for my academic success and future goals. I occasionally went to football games at your high school to try to find you. I began to grow up, however, and came to see that pursuing you would lead nowhere. I never forgot you, of course, or stopped thinking about you. 

Somehow I managed to avoid contacting you for three whole years. I found myself back in St. Louis in a transitional moment one summer during college. I was bored and curious, and in a moment of impulse I called you. We had a lovely conversation, as I remember. You invited me to a baseball game, and I was thrilled to be able to spend an evening with you, perhaps this time to be friends. I tried hard to ignore the churning in my stomach as I sat next to you in the car and in the stadium. We had a great time--or at least I did. After the game, we went to my parents' home to hang out. We sat and talked for hours, looked through yearbooks, and laughed. I apologized for being crazy in the years before. Then you threw me off balance, physically and mentally, by saying, "Crazy enough to do this?" and kissing me. The floor fell out from under me, and I melted. I can still recall how I felt that night--it was very physically intense. The bad news was that in being physical with you, I ignored the barriers that I had built in my mind to separate the real you from the you I spent time with in my dreams. I scared you away by saying things I didn't mean, things that were part of our script. The mental fallout from that night gave me ongoing anguish.

Again you withdrew. I left St. Louis again. I was feeling annoyed rather than hurt by what you did, and I returned to college determined not to speak to you again. I talked with my therapist and friends about my feelings and found lots of support. One morning I woke up and simply felt free. I said to myself, "I am over him!" Not that everything made sense, but I was certain that I wouldn't again make the mistake of conflating you and the you I had invented.

Ah, but how little I knew. That very afternoon, I opened my mailbox to find a letter from you. It must have been more than two months after you left me that hot summer night. My hands trembled as I opened the letter. I think now that you must have been lonely at your new college, or maybe you did want to strike things up again. I couldn't resist this opportunity to try to make things right, and I replied. Our correspondence began anew. You met with my friend Rachel, who traveled to Chicago to see her then-boyfriend. You raised real concerns about me in talking to her. I know that I wasn't even remotely stable in my sense of self back then, but I was also not the same girl you'd known years before. I was irritated by your seeming inability to see how I'd changed, but I was drawn to you as I'd never been drawn to anyone before. Eventually, you asked if you could drive up to visit me at Bryn Mawr. I was thrilled but suspicious. What was different this time? I'd like to believe that you really wanted to see me, but perhaps you were bored at your parents' new house in Atlanta and wanted to be company for your brother on his drive to New York.

When you arrived on campus, I was so afraid to be alone with you that I invited another friend of mine to drive with us to New York. It was a very tense, long, uneventful trip. We returned at some painfully early hour of the morning and got ready for bed. I still couldn't believe you were there, in my world. I sincerely thought that you wanted a platonic friendship, and I suppressed any other feelings I had. I set you up in the guest bed, gave you a chaste peck on the cheek, and said good night. Your response was "Is that all I get?" and you pulled me down to you. The floodgates were open. Again I said things I didn't mean and that were damaging to our fragile friendship. I felt as though I was watching myself as part of a train wreck.

You met my friend Elizabeth during your visit and became her friend, too. I was happy that you seemed happy. I remember studying Greek with Elizabeth in a classroom, with you as company. You drew the Arch on a blackboard, told Elizabeth about St. Louis, and we all laughed together. I remember climbing with you to the top of one of the towers of Thomas Great Hall one night. We sat in the cold, looking down on campus. I can't recall what we talked about, but I can vividly remember you sitting across from me. I was in shock that this man I had wanted to befriend for nearly all my life was right next to me, in the place I'd always hoped he'd be. I remember you kissing me and wishing me good luck as I went to take my Calculus exam. I remember how it felt being with you on campus. During my remaining time at Bryn Mawr, I would always think of you when I walked across Merion Green. (In fact, I still thought of you at my 15th reunion.) I remember that it snowed while you were visiting, and that I got drunk. I went to talk to some friends down the hall, but you were concerned I was outside, engaged in some variety of self-mutilation. We were again sinking into that script. I really *was* a strong person then, although you couldn't see it. 

I don't know quite what led to the final breakdown between us, but we were once again at an impasse, seeing each other as people we weren't. Perhaps you were afraid of me never letting you go, and I suppose I was afraid of that, too. 

I finally saw that our patterns of interacting were fixed, ruined, and sad. I wrote and mailed you a letter several weeks later, attempting to stand up for myself at last and telling you that I could no longer abide your hot and cold ways. But of course, that didn't mean it was over--at least not to me. Several months later I had a friend call you to see if you had received my note. You had, but there wasn't really any more to say. We were blind.

Years passed. I slowly gained perspective, set goals and achieved them. From time to time I would dream of you; the ideal you and I became great friends. I mourned the real friendship that didn't exist, but I grasped at last that there was no way I could get you to see me as anyone different than a very insecure, mentally ill, intense fifteen-year-old. That continues to sadden me. Maybe the real you would or could never like the real me, but then again, perhaps that's beside the point.

I would hear echoes of things about you and ask occasional strategic questions of people who might know things about you, even third-hand. I found out that you had studied in England, and I wondered if you had thought of me at all while you were there. 

After college I lived in Ireland, in Galway, and thought of you daily because your family's surname is everywhere. I traveled to Spain to follow the Camino de Santiago, going to mass each day and enjoying the landscape of Asturia and Galicia. I wondered what it would have been like to meet you on your own pilgrimage. What would I say to you?

Each time I traveled to a different city, I casually searched the sea of faces for yours. I did this all over the world. I don't know what I would gain by meeting you, though. There seems to be no real closure to achieve, no way forward. You made it clear long ago that you are at worst indifferent to--and at best ambivalent about--me. 

Perhaps that's the most difficult thing of all for me to accept.