Friday, September 9, 2011

Summer Mornings on the Road: Birthday Gifts

Recently, I celebrated another birthday--always better than the alternative! I know that for some people, birthdays bring dread, but (so far!) I have always been excited about mine. Maybe it’s because mid-summer just seems to be the perfect time of year to celebrate a birthday. The warm weather and long photoperiod are like an extra helping of the natal gifts of air and light. And so, I think of the months of June and July, and a little into August, as long as the extra light lasts, as a time to allow myself a kind of extended birthday celebration. The way I celebrate is to get on my bike at the crack of dawn, before the day’s activities (even the normally early ones), and, in the extra daylight, go out and look at the world. I take in the quiet, the growing light and changing colors and shapes in the sky, the changing scenery, the smooth, continuous motion along the road. I notice my breath deepen with the moderate exertion. It fills me with a simple pleasure, with the joy, calm and freshness of morning. Most days I bring a camera and try to capture some of the images that strike me on the way. I think of the images, and the sounds and smells that accompany them, as a collection of birthday gifts. Here I would like to share some of them, in gratitude for my fifty-six years.

Putting together these images, looking back at them, I remember how sweet it was to see them, how much these birthday mornings still give me pleasure and comfort. This comfort is something of which, for one reason and another, including the hugely positive rites of passage of #1 son’s high school graduation and very successful first job, I seem to have been in particular need this past year. Maybe they are so comforting because I remember being out on the road last year, remember having these gifts and then “losing” them, and now, like my birthday, they were back: calm and beautiful and waiting no matter what kind of drama or uncertainty might be going on in my head or my life.
And, there is something I find comforting about being alone outside in nature, something that, mysteriously, comes to mind when I think about feeling, in that large and non-exclusive way, loved. I’m not sure exactly how this solitary experience can be related to something we ordinarily think of as interpersonal (love), but there it is. Maybe it has to do with nature's gratuity: as with my birthday, riches are lavished on me unconditionally; I did nothing to deserve any of it.

On a bit of a tangent, I wanted to mention an amazingly pithy book that a friend recently lent me entitled, succinctly enough, How to Be an Adult in which the author, David Richo, talks about connections between nature, beauty, and love. And while we’re wandering a bit afield, but really not completely away, I also wanted to offer this link to some music that describes, with sound, some of the feelings that my wanderings and the images in this post have evoked for me. It’s quite overtly religious, yet I think it speaks to the heart, regardless of what your beliefs might be.

I hope these offerings inspire you to seek out the gifts—birthday or otherwise—that the world offers if only we are awake to receive them.

Pure Morning



Monday, June 27, 2011

Being There, and After

As the parent of two teenagers, I not infrequently discover new shades of meaning of the word “discouragement.” Even in my most realistic (and I read everything I could get my hands on while my husband and I waited to adopt, to be sure that my expectations would be realistic) parenting dreams, I never could have imagined the challenges that the teen years would bring. And it’s not even sex, drugs, firearms, or running away, the kinds of things I was ready to worry about. Who would have thought the field of opportunities for parent-child conflict and misunderstanding could be so vast? Who could have anticipated, e.g., how much self-assurance it would take not to be deeply offended by my teenagers’ tenacious conviction of my utter stupidity? And running along with the friction, in the background, is the awareness that such conflicts will soon be replaced by the calm of their absence.

“Vast” is a word that also might describe the doubts, the questions about the future, that plague the parents of teenagers, “Will they become responsible, considerate adults?” “Will they be able to take care of themselves, have jobs, pay their bills?” “Will they have close, healthy relationships?” “Will they ever learn to hang up their towels?” And, “Why didn’t I make this parenting decision rather than that one?” or, “Is there anything at all that I can do about it at this late stage?”

Getting out of this pit of discouragement and doubt only seems possible, paradoxically, when I am able to throw out the questions and evaluations, to drop the story line, to spit in the face of these most consequential concerns, at least for a little while, and only observe, register, imbibe, my sons’ simple physical presence. I am rewarded when I can manage just to savor the sensory data: their forms, their eyes, their whiskered chins, their mannerisms, their non-childlike voices, even those characteristic teenage olfactory features of which I try to get them to be less free in sharing. Once I can just acknowledge this physical presence with gratitude, any positive interaction can, and sometimes does, follow.

Physical presence. Being there. Above all, it has been this physical presence with which I, their second mother, have been blessed for all these years. It is exactly the same presence of which, during this time, their birth parents have been bereaved. As I face a time when my children will be on their own, away from me, I wonder again what that absence must have been, must be, like for their first parents.

Yet, at the beginning of my children’s stories, their presence in my life was not, of course, physical at all. It was their birth parents, with no involvement from their present mom and dad, who brought my children into being. I wonder if they, these creators, are sometimes able to see this event, this piece that is missing from my own parenthood puzzle, as a nugget of indestructible joy, buried as it might be beneath the landslide of adoption grief.

As I watch my children grow up, my parents (myself!) age, my extended family grow and shift, I am forcefully reminded of how life’s only certainty is change. And yet, in another sense, everything that happens actually is permanent, or at least can never be undone or subtracted from but only added to. I think that’s why forgiveness can be so difficult, especially if we mistakenly believe that it means trying to “annihilate” the offense. It’s why, despite what the “amended” birth certificate would suggest, adoptive parents don’t ever completely replace birth parents. It is also why a reunion of an adoptee with his or her birth parent(s) does not undo the adoption. And it’s why something of my children has remained all this time with their birth parents, and why the physical presence, and what flowed from it, that I’ve enjoyed with my sons, as sweet babies or as sometimes obnoxious teenagers, will always be with me.

Soon my teenaged sons will be out of this nest where I’ve wanted so much to nurture and protect them. I face the task of letting go of each one as a child and of getting to know him as an adult. I admit that I’ve had visions of them saying, “I don’t need to be here any more and I’m out of this lame, un-cool family. “ I admit to a nagging little fear that after all this time of getting to know them, they will become, as they strike out on their own, more like strangers. Already we divide, for example, on the quality of TV shows and on what makes something funny.
It’s not a pleasant thing for the people we love to seem like strangers to us. We feel close when we feel like we know them and they know us. Yet, because we are always growing and changing, it seems that every relationship has an element of being a stranger, of needing to discover who the other person is. This is reassuring because it means it’s ok if we don’t know as much as we’d like to about them, that we can always continue to learn. It’s also reassuring, I’m convinced, that whatever strangeness may appear can never completely revoke that gift of physical presence, once bestowed.

As my sons move out into the world, establishing their own identities and getting busy with their lives, I wonder about the level at which we will stay in touch. And I wonder how it will be for them and for their birth parents if and when my sons want to get to know them. I hope that they won’t be afraid to claim their original shared presence, calling on it to counter and heal the years of absence, of strangeness. I am hoping also that if and when this happens, I will remember to be steady in the face of the strangeness I might feel and always to cherish the physical presence I drink in today.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Comfort Ye

Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Freuliche Weinachten, Wesolych Swiat, Felice Navidad....On this day of celebration of the miracle of birth, I would like to extend my heartfelt wishes for comfort and peace to all birth mothers, who may grieve the loss of their children to adoption more intensely on this day. Children who have lost their first mothers may not have the words to express their grief, but to them, including to my own, also I say, yes, I see that it hurts, and wish comfort for them. And though I know there is no comparing losses of actual vs. potential children, I extend wishes for comfort today also to those whose children could never be born, and to anyone who today is separated from a loved one.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Old Self-Love Thing

Sometimes I just hate when people say, "you have to love yourself before you can love others." People often say this by way of offering comfort in the midst of relationship difficulties, but it makes me feel like I'm standing by myself on the top of a windy mountain with a big accusing finger pointing at me. The direction to "love yourself" usually is not comforting at all. Certainly it's not something that one can just go out and get, bring home, take out of the box and have it start working nicely.

And yet, there are times when perhaps a hint of this truth becomes visible, accessible. For example, if we look closely enough at our desires to love others and be loved by them, we realize that even in the most requited of loves, the symmetry is never exactly perfect. I think we assume that it is, and, actually, I think that's ok because I think that what we assume often actually can come to be. I think maybe we depend to some degree on each others' assumptions to bring the symmetry closer to "perfection."

Which means, instead of looking and looking for evidence of the love we want from the other person, might not it be possible, to some degree, to just assume that it's there? And the thing that lets us assume, that could be self-love. Maybe.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Birth Day

Today is my birthday. I'm 55 and still alive! Obvious, of course, at least while I'm doing this writing, but a non-obvious aspect is that today I am officially older than my older sister, my oldest sibling, who died at age 54. I felt her "presence" comforting and encouraging me this morning; still, it's sobering to stand at the front of the line. But not enough to reverse my love and gratitude for this day.

On my birthday, I almost always visit the concept of "birth," a particularly deep well among the deep wells that water the human imagination. (And for those of us touched by adoption, the well may be even deeper.) I wonder about my own birth, about birth in general: just what is it that happens, what are we celebrating? Of course, it's about coming to life, though before we are born we're already alive, if still aquatic, dark-inhabiting, and silent. At birth we claim our terrestrial, diurnal nature; we first receive the gifts of air and of light. We make sound, that first wail of terror and/or joy! It's about the first separation, the first foray from the security of confinement to the risk of freedom. (I will mention that there is an entire story about mothers and children here, but it deserves its own post.)

I wonder, too, about the birth of my children, from which I was absent. I who did not give them birth, vicarious mother, waited and imagined what it would be like, the primal mystery of heaven and earth, of flesh and spirit, happening so far from my own body. I know a few precious details about their births, such as, one had already evident broad shoulders and was delivered using suction to his head, the other was delivered with forceps, the dents from which remained for weeks. They are little proofs of my sons' arrival into the world by the standard method, which I've heard is a fact many adoptees often do not take for granted. Since their births occurred outside of our family, I wonder if there is an implicit urge to skip to the time when we were all together, to gloss over the birth chapter of the story, to not dwell on their own, private, day of Light and Air. In fact, once I heard an adult adoptee say that when she was growing up, her family celebrated her adoption day instead of her birthday(!?!). Though I think all of the partying distracts my sons from focusing on the fact of their births, I have always hoped I could make a comfortable space for each of them to hold and treasure his own birth day.

On my 55th birthday, on this day in midsummer when surprise lilies and cardinal flowers are blooming and cicadas are calling at high decibels, I am thinking about the natal gift of air. Talk about something we take for granted, something that usually seems more like a "nothing." But eagles and hummingbirds, not to mention 747s, are supported by it, it can feel good when it moves around us at the right temperature and speed, or, as the Talking Heads put it in the eponymous song, "Air can hurt you, too" (as in a tornado). And without it we're just finished. Even more than food or drink, it is what connects our bodies with the outside world. As BKS Iyengar said in The Tree of Yoga (I am paraphrasing), when we take in air, (inhale), we reach out, contacting the world; when we let it out (exhale), we return, retreat, to our self. Our first birthday present keeps on giving, with us reciprocating, the most basic form of balance, as long as we breathe. For free.

And that gratuity is, I think, the heart of the of birthday elation, celebration. A birthday arrives with its gratuity every year, regardless of one's laziness, carelessness, disorganization, procrastination, incompetence, immaturity, selfishness, or worse, along with chronic doubt and senseless guilt, the things that constrict the free flow of air in and out of us. It is entirely undeserved, like amnesty, like forgiveness.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Adoption and Trees

During my bike rides in early June, I was able to observe so many ordinary things as wonderful, among them the leaves on the trees at this time of year. The show of the flowering trees (Forsythia, apple, crab, cherry, pear, redbud, dogwood, etc.) was long over, but I’d never before really noticed the effect of all the green leaves, newly mature. Not only were they dark, full-sized, and numerous, but they were so precisely stacked and distributed, fresh recruits at the beginning of the season’s long labor of photosynthesis. Their shapes were so perfect, not yet exposed to the munching of insects or the battering of repeated storms.

I love trees for the sheltering, architectural living things they are, whose cutting down can hurt like the loss of a friend. One of my earliest memories, or maybe it was just a family story that became a memory, was of my father and his friends cutting down the trees (probably weedy Alanthus) in the back yard of our "new" house and my displeasure about it. And when we lost our American Elm trees in the front, my proposal to plant an apple tree in their place was rejected.

I love trees for the way they evoke the human figure, even the face. They are among my favorite things to draw or just to gaze at and “read:” arms, fingers, legs, torsos, in conflict, affection, supplication, passion, protection.
They are dancers. They are people in yoga poses: backbends, twists, and, especially, inversions, leafy legs in the air. (The Sanskrit word for handstand—Adho Mukha Vrksasana—actually translates literally as “downward facing tree.”)

I know I am far from alone in this love of trees; there even have been cultures who saw them as objects of worship. More abstractly, the idea of a tree has been used as a metaphor for a wide variety of concepts, e.g., the tree of life, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the tree of yoga, and of course, the family tree. As a new adoptive parent, I had read about the ubiquity of the assignment to construct a family tree in elementary school and how it could be difficult for adopted children. I was prepared to draw creative trees with my kids, the roots representing their birth families and the branches representing our adoptive family. As luck would have it, however, my children (who both are already out of elementary school) happen to have been spared, or perhaps deprived of, the dreaded Family Tree Assignment. They didn’t have to feel uncomfortable and different about showing their family tree to the class, but neither did we have this particular opportunity to sit down and work through how they belong, in different ways, to our adoptive family and to their birth families. The tree they might have drawn would not have been quite the kind of thing one could find in nature, but it would have been a way to describe their reality.

Actually, the tree as a model for family relationships has its limitations, even for biological families. Where the tree “originates” is necessarily arbitrary, and information about the origins of members who marry into the family generally are not included. Describing remarriage after death or divorce also requires some creativity to portray. In fact, only if we reproduced by splitting in two like amoebae would a tree truly be an accurate description of family relationships.

The family of adoption often has been portrayed as a grafted tree, as in the collection of poems, Perspectives on a Grafted Tree, edited by Patricia Irwin Johnston. Sherri Eldridge, in her “Twenty Things” books (e.g., Twenty Things Adopted Children Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, Twenty Things Adoptive Parents Need to Succeed) often refers to adoption in terms of a grafted tree. This metaphor has some glaring limitations, e.g., apple trees are grafted in order to propagate apples with as little variation as possible, which doesn't sound like what we are trying to do with our children. But the process of grafting is a graphic illustration of the loss and healing that happens in adoption. Adoptees are cut off from their genetic past, adoptive parents from their genetic future. While this doesn't replicate a non-grafted tree, when they are bound together, love, like water and sap, flows between the two parts. The roots provide the graft with water, minerals, and a secure connection to the earth; the graft then produces leaves for photosynthesis to nourish the whole tree and, ultimately, flowers and fruit. I love this image of intimacy and draw comfort and encouragement from it when the storms of the teen years rumble.

Sometimes I wish my kids hadn’t gotten out of the family tree assignment. One or the other may have worked through the complex tree idea, or, for the sake of getting it over with, and to not stick out among classmates, may have opted to use a tree that only included the family with whom they live. If it was I in their position, I might have wanted to change the focus of the assignment and offer a picture of the sawtooth oak in front of out house as our family tree, which we planted in cooperation with our city’s public works department. Besides being an example of how sometimes you really can do what you want when you grow up and have your own house, it does mirror some things about our family. This tree started its life somewhere else and was dug up and transplanted to our yard, where we love it, behold it change and grow, care for it as we can, and release it to elements we can’t control. Already it’s lost branches to ice storms, and who knows what pests lurk out there to threaten its integrity? But, mostly, each day’s disasters and triumphs don’t make or break it. And I think this year we will have a good crop of acorns.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Day Fourteen TWWS

Sunday, 6 June 2010. OK, one last post. This because a fellow swimmer and I finally got together for a bike ride that we'd discussed before the hiatus but hadn't managed until today. (Hooray!). She had chosen to run while the pool was closed, which went well enough except for a sore foot; she was very much looking forward to swimming again.

We met at her house at 5:30, when it was cloudy and quite cool, so cool that we swung by my house to get a sweater (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it). We headed east on Washington Street. She commented on the gorgeous smell of the linden and also that privet smelled something like it. Just east of Highcross, I saw a great blue heron flying in the southwestern sky. We turned north on Cottonwood Rd., and I pointed out my Quiet Place. We both noticed how lush and deep green everything was after yesterday's rain.

Rode north on Cottonwood into a fairly stiff headwind, working pretty hard to cross the I-74 Bridge. The numerous peonies close to the house just north of the bridge were definitely finished with their show for the year. Went past Trelease Prairie, Trelease Woods, and the Phillips tract, and then past the place where I turned around on Friday. Saw deer in several places.

We talked and talked and talked, about recent and past, happy and difficult events in our respective families. I didn't notice a lot of the little things I might have seen if I were alone, but the overall feel of the countryside in the quiet, cool morning was delightful, as was chatting with a person I see mostly underwater.

We turned north at Airport Rd. and made our way back past Brownfield Woods and a well-appointed house with what looked like a horse barn and horse fencing that my companion used the word "manor" to describe. At one point, we weren't sure which direction we were heading, but soon we were at the very recognizable intersection of Cunningham and Country Club Rd. We had been out for over an hour and a half but weren't quite ready to quit and decided to take a loop of Meadowbrook. On Race Street on the way was an unfortunate possum that had been hit by a car a while ago. At Meadowbrook, not far from the iris/cardinal flower site, she showed me where she and her family recently had seen a spectacular show of lightning bugs. Another wonder of this special, magical site in dear Meadowbrook Park.

The thought of lightning bugs reminded me of something I've thought of a lot while writing this blog, something my husband told me that Mark Twain had said about the difference between the right word and almost the right word, which is like that between the words "lightning" and "lightning bug."

At the prairie observation platform, we noticed that the clouds were really breaking up and the sun was shining gloriously. Truly a perfect morning. We agreed to do this again.

We returned to her house and admired the landscaping she and her family had been working on with the help of a neighbor. It was woodsy and restful.

We both were excited to anticipate the next morning's swim!

One last note. The past two weeks were more enjoyable than I ever would have imagined going into this. So you may have expected a list of good things about cycling to balance my original ten reasons swimming is better than cycling for daily exercise. Well, I guess I can come up with something. Here are

Ten Reasons Cycling Can Be as Good as Swimming for Daily Exercise, at Least When the Pool Is Closed

1. The smells are mostly much better.
2. Lots of bird songs.
3. The wind.
4. Flowers!
5. Passing walls of trees.
6. Conversation during the workout is possible, if one can coordinate the timing.
7. Views of the moon.
8. The horizon.
9. Birds, visually.
10. The dangers (losing control and crashing, getting hit by a vehicle or attacked by a dog, etc.) make it kind of exciting. (Ironically, referring to my original list, I had no trouble with crashing on the rides reported in this blog but did have a minor crash with a fellow swimmer out first day back in the water!)

Note: I tried to post this on Sunday evening, but Blogger was inaccessible.