Archive for February, 2008

I’m working on a longer project and reviewing some of my all-time favorite books. I love Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City not only because he writes about having a drunk, homeless father he grew up without but who lives with his psyche (and who he eventually meets) but because he’s a poet and his memoir is so lyrical and has a gut-punch. Check out these passages:

excerpts from the chapter apologist starting on page 7

“If you asked me about my father then-the years he lived in a doorway, in a shelter, in an ATM-I’d say, Dead, I’d say, Missing, I’d say, I don’t know where he is. I’d say whatever I felt like saying, and it would all be true. I don’t know him, I’d say, my mother left him shortly after I was born, or just before. But this story did not hold still for long. It wavered.

…Ask me about him now and I’ll say, Housed. Twelve years. Subsidized. A Section 8. A disability. I’ll thank you for paying his rent, unless you’re also a Section 8. Unless by the time you read this he’s been evicted again. Ask now and I’ll say he’s a goddamn tree stump, it’ll take dynamited to get rid of that mother _ _cker.”

Wow. He’s so honest. He’s so visual. He’s brutal in his descriptive language. I’m hooked. The book is a memoir but it’s told as a feeling truth, a living legacy, a dynamic and fluid story, a raveling and unraveling where ethics are questioned and judgements are made and analyzed and questions about responsibility for/to self and others…. and the journey.” Fascinating. Gut-wrenching. Beautiful and tragic. Both.

When I met him at an author reading on the So. Shore I had to thank him for this book, putting words to this story, for speaking for those of us who grew up without a father. I wonder how many adult fatherless people he met, how many siblings and friends and relatives of homeless people he knows, the comments and responses he gets. Curious. Someone said to me, “It’s the guy version of your story.” Maybe someday I’ll write the girl version. Would it be chick-light chick lit? What do those phrases even mean. I hope to get enough perspective on my life, even if that means just being with the entire complex story without perspective, to commit pen to paper, to get something down, formed and out.  

Gratitude of the day: My partner and daughter built a snow person and snow dog outside. They make faces of raisins and celery and use funky hats. We have a mellow family day. 

Our daughter says, “You’re the best mom in all the history of moms,” and then to her dad, “You’re my favorite dad ever.” 

This is a day of exuberant well-being.  In case we get to smug, as I lift the blue floral blanket up over my sleepy girl, she says, “You’re the best coverer ever. Well, you are forty (forty-one really). I’m only five.”


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Notes on ‘Mining Your Past: Windows on Vanished Worlds’ – A Lecture by Pauline ChenAuthor of Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality  

Note:Pauline Chen gave permission for me to share my notes about her talk on my blog 

Her voice so quiet at first I was afraid I’d actually have to motion my arms up or pull on my ear as she has asked us to do if we couldn’t hear her. I’ll be straining to hear I thought. My writing group buddies are sit-in-the back types. I was in a go-along mood and didn’t move to the front. My glasses, thick and strong and with my face since before kindergarten have made me a front-seat girl all of my life.   I shouldn’t have worried.

Pauline Chen’s voice, though not loud, was insistent, insightful and intense. I heard every word. Her first message, the one she shared with passion and right away was this:   “Every one of us here tonight has a story that is worth telling.”  

No, she didn’t have to meet and interview the group to know this. She didn’t even have to know if we were all writers though it seemed many were. The message, we all have a story worth telling, holds (and that means reading this blog too).  Whether you’ll tell your story as writer, in written form or dance or sing or honor your life story in other ways is another story. But for those drawn to words and writing, I’ll share Chen’s words. I’ll share her nuggets but first, her book jacket bio:  

“A brilliant transplant surgeon brings compassion and narrative drama to the fearful reality that every doctor must face: the inevitability of mortality.   

When Pauline Chen began medical school, she dreamed of saving lives. What she could not predict as how much death would be part of her work. Almost immediately, she found herself wrestling with medicine’s most profound paradox – that a profession premised on caring for the ill also systematically depersonalizes dying. Final Exam follows Chen over the course of her education and practice as she struggles to reconcile the lessons of her training with her innate sense of empathy and humanity. A super addition to the bet medical literature of our time.”  

I have started her book, reading chapters out of order as is my habit. She is warm with humanizing patients and her own doctor self and has a cool intimacy when sharing the cold, gruesome and essential detail. The way the science and humanities co-exist in medicine and the author are rare. I know this as I’m married to a man who is passionate about changing nursing policy, who advocates on behalf of unionized nurses, who fights to change nurse to patient ratios in order to serve patients and keep nurses in the profession they start out loving. What the medical system does to caregivers is often brutal. What Chen gives the readers real views of how many medical institutions operate and why, caregivers and healers can be most averse to illness and death despite how counter-intuitive it may seem.   She writes, on page218, (I’m not giving away a Harry Potter ending here):  ”The honor of worrying – of caring, of easing suffering, of being present – may be our mot important task, not only as friends but as physicians, too.  And, when we are finally capable of that, we will have become true healers.”  

In person, talking with other writers, it’s obvious she enjoys helping people. She prescribed many techniques and tips to writers of all kinds, particularly those of us who write memoir.  

Details and Memories

Some of her specific suggestions are to ask questions: And now I’m quoting from her hand-out: 

1.     Questions:*What do I want to learn about this event?*Is there a question that keeps bringing me back to this memory?*What question might others be most interested in?

2.     Conflict(s)Transformation often occurs after confronting an obstacle. (She said this can be me vs. inner self, me vs. institution, me vs. a person, old self vs. new self). The resulting conflicts are not necessarily traumatic or dramatic, but disentangling them in our minds can sometime help us with writing.

3.     Going BackReliving the old memory  

Raking the Mind – Chen’s Process

She said two things that work for her are writing about a memory that recurs, a memory that repeats and stays with one. Another is to sit down and see what memory emerges on the page. Once “with” a memory she talked about giving oneself over to the process of writing, allowing details to emerge and not censoring the self while in this phase of writing.   Her own process, she said, is somewhat meditative. She said, “I open my mind. Rake through to find recurrent thoughts sitting above others.” She said the best times for her to do so are not when she’s sitting in front of the computer but when she’s driving, showering, doing the dishes or falling asleep.

She talked about the way writers, in some sense, are always working on the writing.   A quote she shared, by Catherine Drinker Bowen, “Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which wait always before or behind.”  

For triggering memories in a more active way she suggested writing lists (such as a list of significant relationships, jobs such as careers and jobs such as being a parent or care-taking child) as well as by reviewing photo albums (and not just your own), journals, the old notes or receipts uncovered when cleaning a desk, the movies, music and art that inspires.  

The Ten-Minute Notebook or You Can Write a Book in 15-Minutes a Day

One of my favorite tips she shared is the ten-minute notebook which she has used herself. You get a notebook, make a table of contents in the first few pages, and write for ten minutes a day, giving each entry a title.  She reminded everyone, a book can be written in fifteen-minute chunks of time.

She emphasized, especially to one woman with young children, “honoring” the time one makes for writing even if it is only ten-minute chunks. She talked about being a mother of twins and writing when they napped. She talked about how when a medical resident, the primary needs for sleep and eating won out. However, she said, the writing, once honored, and when you believe you have a story to tell, does find more space and time in your life. She said, you stop trying to fit it in as an extra as build it into daily life.

She did not say this process was easy or anyone gives you permission to go write or that getting paid or having writing published makes this process more or less difficult.   Chen said, in her opinion, once you BELIEVE you have a story worth telling, some of the problems and obstacles writers face, how to mine the past, find time,, publish, etc. fall into place.  

She also talked about asking, after detailing a memory, why is that memory important? Significant? She said, if you are being really honest with yourself this is a really really hard question to answer. But, answering it helps develop a narrative so we discover for ourselves and our reader why it is so important.  In her own process, she said, “I sit there, stare, close eyes and make hands an extension of brain, pushing back into living memory. As you go back… like a ghost to an old haunt, you write all the details. How did it feel? How did the feeling feel?” She said to stay with the details for a while and may return several times to the same memory over days or a week (and in thinking often).   

She says, AFTER being with the memory, the arc, story, and point of view appears. But it is “after the blob of details” and only AFTER does she see how it all goes and why it’s important.  

Honesty, Vulnerability and Hard Work

She said, “It’s thrilling. It’s scary. It’s akin to a literary drowning.” She said, “It’s akin to walking around without fingernails.”   While this might sound so frightening or uncomfortable you are wondering, why one does this she said, “It allows other people to go through the process without going through the pain you did. It’s something you can give to people.”  I loved this concept because how many of us turn to books, memoir and fiction, to be consoled about our own humanity or what seems the lack of it in the world? This communicating, the ultimate, “You are not alone” self-help stuff is what many of us who are writers, or let me say, this writer, seeks out and wants to give back.   

Her hand-out had this Leo Tolstoy quote: “One only ought to write when one leaves a piece of one’s own flesh in the inkpot each time one dips one’s pen.” 


He talked about how hard the writing can be and when she’ll say to her husband how hard it is he’ll say, “If it’s really hard, it’s probably really good.”   She talked about how truthful writers need to be, how readers can always tell when you “aren’t getting down to the depth, the deepest part.” She said, “Readers know when you’re being deep – not superficial.”   She said it’s tricky because as a doctor she has to protect the patient and a writer she must tell the truth. In most cases, she has been able to ask permission of the patients she wrote about and been in contact with their families. Other times she can change identifying facts and details.   

Someone asked, “What if you don’t remember details?” and she said, “Maybe the detail isn’t important.”   

Editing – Be Ruthless but Don’t Edit Too Soon

She did speak a bit of editing too. She cautioned not to self-edit too soon while writing is fresh and details are being collected. But did admit that more than one draft of her book was tossed, not in the trash, but not submitted and published. She said “cut and paste” can keep those editing outs from hurting too much and she still cherishes some of what she wrote. But a good amount didn’t belong in her book. She said, “Not every sentence meaningful to you is meaningful to the piece.” She said, once she is editing, she can be ruthless, but is sure not to edit too soon.  On Publishing and Agents

She said “Your writing reflects you” and not just how you write but the kind of person you are. She said, if you get an agent, you want to find one who gets what you are trying to do with your writing and who isn’t pushing you to write something that will sell. She said an agent is an important person you’ll have a relationship with and you should meet them if possible.  She talked about her sense of duty is to herself, to write, to honor her story.

“I don’t believe in writing something that will sell,” she said. “We know what is important. In terms of readers, I don’t think we should write with an eye to publishing. No one knows what will sell.” She said, “There’s something to be said for writing for yourself and your family.”

She signed my book at the end of the night. I told her I have an agent but with my first book, a memoir, I was encouraged to write a hybrid-memoir. It was a great idea. Maybe better than the one I had. I couldn’t write the book in that style, it required too much research and I didn’t have the time. I gave up on the project. My agent was flexible but I didn’t know how to say, “This is my vision for this book.”    

Chen said, “You want to write something that your children and grandchildren can read something where they will know you.” I agreed. The story is worth telling, YOUR STORY and my own, and it needs to be honored even if it has a much smaller audience.   

Members of our writing group hung outside the bookstore like drunks closing the bar. We were energized and electrified, rethinking old writing and wanting to get to the page with new ideas. “We can’t shut up,” Kathy said, to Amy, a woman instrumental in getting Grub Street South and these talks out here on the South Shore as she was leaving. ”

“You’re with your people,” Amy said, smiling.

For an interview with Pauline Chen by Amy MacKinnon, go to: http://www.writersgroupblog.blogspot.com/ 

To link to Chen’s own site, go to http://paulinechen.typepad.com/

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I heard memoir writer Pauline Chen speak tonight. She’s author of Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality.  

She is a talented writer but also a generous teacher. She shared so much about her own writing process. She emphasized the need for including details in memoir as well as ways to honor the memories that return and stay with us. 

My writing buddy was sitting next to me and remembered a detail from a piece I wrote. She remembered the minnows. I’ll share that piece below.

But, come back to my blog for detailed notes on Chen’s talk. It will be the subject of my next post. She was generous in sharing her techniques, approaches and tips and has given  me permission to write about her talk. It deserves a fresh morning mind. For tonight, I’m going to hit publish and dive under the covers so I can read more of her memoir!  

Chasing the Blues

I was eight-years old, at Old Orchard Beach in Maine, building sand castles and digging rivers in the sand. I didn’t care that I had a patch covering my good eye to strengthen my bad eye, or was wearing the putrid yellow bathing suit handed down from Nana who had sewn daisy patches on the breasts to bunch up the extra material my child chest didn’t need.

             The sun cooked the skin on my back, warmed my shoulders and dried the mud on my hands turning to it back to sand. My stomach told me it was almost dinner time. I was tired; a good tired, the way a farmer gets tired after a day in the field, the way an artist gets tired after hours in a pottery studio.

            I looked up and saw the sandbar was gone. The place where I had written E L L I E, the name of my dog, had been washed over. There was hardly any room left to work. Then I saw the silver flecks of light, dancing with the waves, moving closer and closer, like a swarm of pulsing dragon flies.  The tide kept coming and with it, the minnows.



            I wanted to touch them, catch them. When the waves receded, the minnows were left on the sand. They jumped like Frisbees expecting to be caught by the ocean. But they weren’t. They waited on the sand and so did I.

            Do fish pray? That’s what I wonder now. Were they praying for the water to engulf them, wondering what they had done to made the tide turn away?         

            I ran to the edge where water met sand. At first I was careful, trying not to squish them as I threw them back in. How many could there be? I grabbed handful after handful. My mother who was reading on her chair, away from the water and close to the road.

            “Help me,” I said and noticed older boys standing in a group, giggling. “Help me!” I repeated. My mother walked towards me, her shoulder-length curls bouncing in the wind.

             “What’s so funny? They are dying. It’s not funny,” I said to my mother hoping the boys would hear and feel bad.

            “There are just so many Cis. It’s nature’s way,” she said.

             “Can you help me, help me put them back?” I said.

            She did, as did a few strangers – mostly older couples. We speckled the shore line trying to undo what nature kept doing, feeble, like people passing water in thimble-size buckets trying to soak the rage of a fire.

“I think we’ve got them all Cis…..”

“No we don’t. We don’t, Mom.”

“That’s all that can be done,” she said.

“No, it isn’t,” I said.

“Cis, we need to go,” she said.

“But Mom…” I said, standing up, trying not to look down at the remaining minnows.


      I was tired, hungry and wanted to go but didn’t want to abandon the fish.  My mother grabbed my bucket and pale. I followed. We lumbered through the ankle-deep sand to her chair. She slipped into her Dr. Scholl’s and palmed her Newport Lights. She was twenty-six and wearing cut-off jeans and a t-shirt. Her strong legs were tan and looked bare, so different than the nylons and work clothes I was used to seeing.

     She turned me away from the ocean and towards the street, wrapped a towel around me and kept her hand on my shoulder as we walked back towards the cottage.


“Why does the ocean throw away the minnows?” I said.   

“Because the mackerel are running. They chase the minnows to the shore so they are easier to catch,” she said.

“Fish eat other fish?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “They do,” she said.

“So it’s the mackerels fault,” I said.

“No,” she said, “They are getting chased by the blues.”

“Well then I hate the blues. They are mean,” I said.

”They don’t do it to be mean, Cis. That’s how they survive,” she said.

”Can’t they eat seaweed?” I said.

“But they don’t,” she said.

“Why? Why can’t they?” I said.

“Because they don’t. Fish eat other fish. We eat the fish,” she said.

“Well I hate fishermen,” I said. “I hope they catch nothing. I hope they prick their fingers on those hooks.”

“That’s not nice Cissy. I don’t think you mean that,” she said.

“Uh, huh. I do,” I said. “Those stupid vests and hooks.”

Now I remember those fisherman, how they searched for perfect spots on the jetty, how they unpacked for a day, pulling out bait and sandwiches, how the yellow mustard dried on their mustaches and beards. I ran into them at the register in the corner store where they bought worms and I bought pixie sticks.   

When we got back to the cottage, I could see the silhouette of my step-father through the screen door. He sat at the head of the dining room table, his hairy chest uncovered, his belly hanging over his the thick black belt holding up his work pants, playing solitaire. He was older and less healthy than my mother. He had emphysema and spent the first hour of each morning coughing phlegm into the sink, gripping the counter top, red-faced and fighting for air. His coughing, loud and violent, was the morning alarm; it shook the house but didn’t keep him from smoking.

I remember doing the math once on the scrap of a napkin and yelling out to my mother, “Dad is twice your age,” and I meant it the way a child means things – literally. He was 52. She was 26.

As my mother opened the screen door of the cottage it slammed behind her. She turned quickly and we were sharing the top step, me outside, her inside, facing each other.

            “I’m sorry Cis,” she said.

“I know,” I said, “But who gets the fisherman?”

She looked up and away, at the sky, over my head.

“Look at that jet stream. Just look at it,” she said. 

“You know I can’t see that far with this patch,” I said.

“Well you could at least look,” she said.

“You could at least answer me,” I said. “Who gets the fisherman?”

“Don’t talk to your mother that way,” he said from the table, “I don’t like your tone.”

“God, I guess,” she whispered, and turned from the sky, dropping all but her cigarettes and yellow lighter on the red vinyl chair by the door. 

She grabbed the air for me and motioned me towards the table.

“Sit down while I make dinner,” she said and nodded a hello to my step-father.       I watched his hands, shuffling and setting up the cards, the speed at which he could mix them was impressive. Over and over he seemed to split the deck in half and spray the cards down into each other as two piles disappeared into one. I practiced those moves in my bedroom at night trying to make the thick cards snap and dance the way he could.

We had hot dogs and macaroni salad for dinner.

“You smell,” my sister said as she sat next to me.

My hands reeked of fish but I refused to wash them.


“Leave her alone,” my mother said with a protective tone.           My sister was quiet. Everyone was.

“Do they all die, Mom? Do all of the fish die? The minnows, the mackerels and the blues?” I asked her. 


“Oh Cissy,” she said, and released her signature heavy sigh, the same one she let out at the end of every cigarette before deciding whether to light another – or mourn it as though her last. 

“Do they all just die, Mom?” I asked.

“You ask your mother too many questions,” my step-father said.

“Fine, I’m going to bed,” I said starting to get up.

“You haven’t been excused young lady,” he said.

“Let her go,” my mother said, putting her hand over his.


“Not just yet,” he said, pulling me towards his lap, grabbing a shoulder strap and kissing my cheek with his slippery lips. I turned my face away and tried to catch my mother’s eye. 

She sat in the chair adjacent to his and used a hand to pull her plastic yellow ashtray closer. She breathed in deeply after the end was lit and stared up into the dusty chandelier hanging over the table.

“Every year some of them survive,” she exhaled.

My towel hung over my shoulder and followed me as if it were a wet and dirty cape being dragged up each step. When I got to the bedroom, I stared at the bed, decided not to change, climbed under the covers with my sandy-bottomed bathing suit still on. Pushing the pillows off of the bed, I slid under the covers. I rested my head on the mattress and clutched the towel before wrapping it around my ears so I couldn’t hear the waves hitting the shore.                         

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One of the vases on my mantle is filled with pink, purple and blue pieces of sea glass. As I passed it today I was sure the colors changed. The pinks are more intense. The purples are darker. They seemed to whisper before but are now confident. The few blues are sharp in color. Do they change color being held in glass all day? Are they celebrating the survival song of warmth and safety, indoors and out of the elements? Or are they mannequins in a store window tired of being objectified and accessorized?

Today, I thought of them as children. They seemed remarkable and sincere. Each one fresh and not yet trying on the design of being acceptable and fitting in. My daughter said, “Why am I the only one in pre-school with glasses?” I said, “Because some of the other kids parents haven’t been to the eye doctor and a lot of kids don’t need glasses.” It wasn’t the best answer or the worst just the first that came to mind. It was late in the day and I wasn’t my most sensitive or without and patience either.

“Can I get tacks before I’m fifty-one?” she asked.

“Yes, yes you can.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“Do you wish other kids had them too?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“I wished that too when I was little,” I said. And this, unlike the being different because of race, is something we do share. I remember having glasses and feeling different and different not feeling good (at least until middle school).

It’s dark now. I have the vase. The pieces, under a lamp, all look similar. The frost on all of them is what I see. The color and texture differences tiny.

Is that what aging does? We see how individual and splendid every being and moment is? At the same time we see how alike everyone is? I’m an endless seeker. As I age, I recognize the desire not for answers but for others to seek along with.

I used to get so angry and irritable as a young woman when even my favorite feminist writers got spiritual or got god. First, it was Alice Walker and then Gloria Steinam with her own inner revolution and Jane Fonda with her return to Christianity and Mary Oliver getting more than spiritual but an actual church. I love these women and at different times I have thought, “Do they all go soft? Is it all so predictable? You get old and seek a hand to hold from the other side?”

It’s a relief I guess that we all go through a similar ripening process. Every apple turns to mush. Even a seed does a life sentence. Is it a relief or a grief to fall back to earth as a dead-headed bloom? Is it more or less glorious if the blooming was glorious and the seeds left offspring behind or does it matter one bit?

I’m as unique as a child and as common as a wrinkle, as shiny as a star and as dull as the bark on any tree.

The middle-aged skin fits better than the skin of youth, at least on me. I hope to keep seeking and to build a community. I hope our daughter sees herself as part of a family way larger than her relatives so the world feels inviting much more often than frightening.

I’ve already brought up God so I guess I can bring up politics. I liked Edwards. I’ve respected McCain. I’m tired of everyone referring to Hillary by her first name. We didn’t call this Bush George just because his father had been president.

Would I have ever voted for Hillary in the primary just because she is a woman? Yes. I think I would have. If she were a man with her war record would I even consider voting for her or be told I’m a “surprising feminist?” I doubt it.

What I know is when I listen to Hillary Clinton speak I know I am hearing an intelligent and experienced person. I believe her leadership would be adequate and her views, on many issues, similar to my own. If she were running against Edwards, and not a man of color, would I be more likely to consider her? These are the questions people are and aren’t asking. I like Edwards and can even respect McCain. I don’t love McCain but I do think he has integrity. I believe he’s capable of independent thinking, going with and against his own party politics to serve his conscience and his country. I don’t think he or any candidate is perfect.

I felt Edwards had the ability to talk about class and a passion and understanding about poverty few others have had. I still don’t understand why he wasn’t more popular. I know some said his talk of taking on lobbyists seemed negative. I believed he felt passionate because without that change he didn’t believe other changes could occur. But who knows?

I love being able to point to Hillary and tell my daughter, “She’s running for president of our country.”

However, when Obama speaks, I want to go out and join the Peace Corps and roll up my sleeves and work at making this country better. I see someone who inspires me and makes me want get more involved and engaged. When he speaks, I don’t watch the debates like they are American Idol or a skating championship and I’m just seeing who performs best. I feel energized, proud and motivated. When I listen to Hillary Clinton, I hear good lines, feel her passion about politics and hear much of what are my preferences on policies.

He’s got that other view where he sees the picture, gets what is going on in governement but isn’t so invested, entrenched and maybe indebted to others that he can’t make sweeping and surprising reforms. If can engage, in record numbers, Americans, to become involved, concerned, passionate and interested how can we lose? 

Already, there’s so much bickering over Hillary Clinton, so much divisiveness and strong feeling. Does she deserve the nomination but isn’t getting it because of unfair factors? I don’t know.

If she is the nominee, I will be proud to be alive when a woman is on the ticket. History will be made. But, will that over-used “C” word happen? Will significant change be made in policy? 

In the end, it’s so satisfying to hear so much talk about politics. In the end, if Hillary Clinton doesn’t get the nomination and Obama fumbles too many times due to inexperience will we say, “We should have gone with her – she knew how to work this machine, the machine of politics and government?” Maybe. Maybe we will.

I’m hoping Obama continues to remind us, those who have forgotten or have never known, that WE are all a part of the machine and we can change the way the government operates.

Can idealism make a comeback? Are the baby boomers having a 60’s flashback and feeling revived? What of the  inexplicable optimism about what might be possible. Have I lost my feminism, smarts or cynicism?

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How Could Anyone

I heard this today, in song, at a Unitarian service for families. It was such a fantastic service. I don’t know who this is by (please leave me a comment if you do). I want to share it as it’s touching to anyone.

It spoke to me. At other points in me life it would have stung and healed the survivor girl but today it was the mother in me who heard the words. I looked at my little girl born in China who recently ask me if all people who give birth have their babies go to others to be adopted. She is just starting to grasp that some, indeed most, who deliver children do go on to raise them. The mind, always approaches complicated subjects, from many angles.

The song or poem is:

How Could Anyone

How could anyone ever tell you

You were anything less than beautiful?

How could anyone ever tell you

You were less than whole?

How could anyone fail to notice

That your loving is a miracle

How deeply you’re connected to my soul.

-Catch of the day: Another one of gratitude for the card, with the hand-written note, the invitation to this service. To the person who sent it and went out of her way, though sick, to make sure I met many people and felt comfortable and who has a fabulous and kind family. It was a wonderful way to start my Sunday. My girl was so at ease and running and crawling and playing after arriving feeling reserved. I am finally learning to honor her personality.

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Winter Fragment

The cool air swam under my scarf and down my back. My beach girl played in the sand, hands damp, muddy and wiped off on me. We hunted for sea glass. We hid under a small row boat when we needed relief from the wind. We were outside for a half hour and it felt a day-long adventure.

The ground is different in winter. The sand a cement tone and texture. Rocks and shells sticking out at angles as though modern art. It was hard to believe the sea could rearrange it all again.

My daughter picked up crab legs, commented on how her friend would like them before deciding to leave them on the sand. She asked why people litter. “They usually aren’t thinking,” is what I said. People are at the beach and don’t notice the wind grabbing a snack bag, or hands are too full and they hope that bottle of water takes care of itself, they are drinking and so carried away in laughs they don’t toss the twelve-pack box. The litter litters the landscape on a beach. It’s so much more obvious than the over-packaged products in plastic, disposable diapers (which I used) or other forms more subtle.

Catch of the Day

-fresh air

-a mother and daughter matching heart “set”

-a white chunk of pottery

-a plate’s edge lined with blue

-a bright blue piece not worn enough to be sea glass but stunning enough to be beach glass that with a glass of white pieces will be stunning

-a light celery green piee of glass

-a bottle bottom, rough and dirty

-a pale piece I thought was white but noticed only later the purple hue

-a little asparagus green piece, dark enough to look like a rock and with the texture of shells of ancient tiem

-white pottery, almost plastic looking

-a well-travel squarish piece

-the rim of a bottle, white and weathered, an iceberg with more on the bottom than the top

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Here’s a link to a fantastic organization. There is information about the work it does in China and with orphanages in China. They are pleading for help given the recent storms in China.  There are many worthy causes and money is tight for so many. I know this.  

However, the image of children, shivering and cold without blankets or heat chills me. The reality of a shortage of too few staff in the best situations who can’t make it to work without injury and falls due to the ice and their own poor conditions at home due to extreme weather makes my heart ache. It is, I must say, the knowing of the impact of institutional living (no matter how “good”) that further threatens infants, babies, toddlers and children who already have to fend for themselves far too much, who don’t have enough eye contact, hand holding, food and warmth that worries me. So I add this link. 


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This is a piece I wrote for a chapter on “The Need to Read” for the book collaboration that fell apart. It was a learning experience to work with four other writers. Writing, on any topic, is never a waste of time. 

This piece is about waiting. One is made a world citizen in a brand new way when adopting internationally. The reasons for delays vary but the delays are a constant. Here’s some of the story of our wait and the addiction I developed while coping several years ago.

My husband, David and I, went to bed for three months pulling, “What if’s?” up with our covers? It was adoption in the times of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and we were fifteen months into our wait.

What if we get sick in Chinawe’d wonder. What if one of us is quarantined? What if the baby gets SARS? What if my asthma symptoms kick in and I’m quarantined? What if we die and orphan an orphan? What if the U.S. doesn’t allow us back into the country because we’re infected?

The questions were endless, circular and unanswerable. The conversations were hypothetical yet necessary. Under normal circumstances we might have been accused of catastrophic thinking. But we were getting emails from our adoption agency reminding us of the war on terror, risks to personal safety and detailing how babies and parents in China were getting their temperatures taken by staff people several times a day in hotels and airports in Chinato screen for SARS. We knew parents were popping ibuprofen as if candy to prevent even the appearance of symptoms.

Instead of reading parenting books, I added the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the China Centerfor Adoption Affairs (CCAA) to the long list of adoption-related favorites on my toolbar.

As adoptive parents-to-be we could indulge in alcohol but certainty was off limits. Instead of getting up 100 times a night to pee, as pregnant woman do, I got up a half dozen times to check the internet. There was no sonogram. Instead, there was the steady blue light coming from the computer in the corner of my living room. I was drawn to it without thought. It was always on. We worried about the children. Were they getting sick in China and languishing in an orphanage?

One day I’d dismiss the worries about terrorism and travel and wonder if the SARS crisis wasn’t over hyped. “You have more of a chance of getting hit by a bus than of getting SARS,” said our pediatrician-to-be. But other times I’d read the names and ages of the people who died. Not all of them were elderly. Would a mask be enough to keep us safe? I envisioned our first family photo with the three of us in light blue masks wearing yellow hazmat suits.

I tracked the death count. “Only 14 new cases today,” I’d say instead of “Good Morning,” when David’s feet hit the bottom step, “Only 4 deaths.”

“Do you need coffee?” he’d ask as I click, click, clicked the mouse. I gulped liters of information. I was the driver in a car, stuck in traffic due to an accident, swearing I’d say a silent prayer instead of looking at the wreckage. But I’d look. Every time. I’d stare. I was a junkie in search of a hit.

I worked planning cultural events at an adoption agency and could not have been surrounded by more sensitive people. It didn’t help. I didn’t want social workers giving me gentle eyes in the elevator or wondering how I was holding up. I didn’t need compassion. I wanted news, breaking, up-to-date and all the time. I couldn’t ask anyone, “What did you do when SARS threatened your adoption plans?” because it never had.

I’d input letters and numbers into spreadsheets and concentrate as much as possible while checking the CCAA website several times an hour. I waited. I clicked. I waited. I Googled. I waited. I ached. I searched for articles and learned everything I could about respiratory illnesses.

The Internet was my source. My secondary supplier was my Aunt Worry (that’s really her name). She never said, “It’ll all be fine.” She sent me links to all news – good and bad. For relief, on particularly difficult days, we’d get Greek salads and I’d down the family size serving in a sitting.

Emails from our agency advised those traveling to create self-quarantine plans upon return to the United States. Parents were told to travel alone so one parent would remain home and healthy.

I wanted only to be online. Knowing others were in cyberspace, hitting the keyboard and anxious was comforting. I knew they were holding in their hearts the way a swimmer holds her   breath in a rip tide, trying to stay loose – afraid if they panic they will drown.

I stayed loyal to my email lists and yahoo groups. David preferred to watch games, CNN news headlines and documentaries on PBS. I’d camp at the computer reading blogs of families traveling in China. David brought me buttered broccoli saying, “At least eat something healthy,” before he dove into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

We waited for more bad news and it came. The China Centerfor Adoption Affairs (CCAA) suspended adoption processing due to SARS on May 15th, 2003. Families who had received referrals would be unable to travel to Chinato formally adopt their children. Referral letters addressed to families such as ours, with details about our child’s name, weight, height and place of birth sat in sealed envelopes and would wait in the offices of the CCAA until SARS was contained.

There’s no metaphor for postponing parenthood because of SARS.  Imagine telling a laboring woman she has to wait indefinitely to give birth, when a health crisis in another country abates, no matter how many centimeters she’s dilated. Imagine hearing, “It’s like you’re in your ninth month of pregnancy which is always the hardest part,” from people who are impatient in a grocery check-out line. I wanted to say, “My ninth month six months ago. My child isn’t in my uterus but an understaffed orphanage where bottles are hooked to the crib and babies suck on them like pet gerbils.”

I devoured books on Buddhism, leaned into the concept of impermanence and tried to accept that the concept of control as an illusion. I decided focusing on the present moment was a good practice for a parent-to-be. My mantras was, “It will happen when it happens – not a minute before or after.” Those words were my solace, my wisdom and I repeated them to myself and wrote them in my journal.

I read more books on Buddhism until my eyes were dry and the words blurry. I slept long enough to provide the essential lubricant so I could wake up and read some more. I tried to be philosophical. Yet, if I could have snorted lines of information and free-based predictions of the future I would have.  

David and I felt were spared from deciding which one of us would travel or what we would do if one of us SARS in China. We couldn’t make a wrong decision if it wasn’t ours to make and that was a relief. “It’s a blessing” we said in the resolved and agonized one says, “It’s a blessing,” when a dying person gets a morphine drip to ease their pain.

Silence filled our bedroom some mornings. Fear slipped in between the sheets. We stared at the ceiling instead of each other waiting for the alarm to go off or asked the worst what if. “What if China never reopens?” I asked.

“I can’t even imagine,” he said.

“That doesn’t help,” I said.

“Oh, was I supposed to be encouraging just now?” he said.

I forgot he was in the exact same situation as I was. Of course he was. But I was waiting to become a mother. Even in the gender-equal world of adoption, it’s not the same. I carried the questions, the worry and all of the paperwork. I labored with the adoption agency and craved the contact with other adoptive mothers-to-be. He wanted information, but only reliable and at predictable intervals and mostly from me. I wanted rumors, ramblings and back-up plans.

When the day finally came, on June 18th, and we learned, again through email, that the CCAA was re-opening and our referral was being mailed, I had a new perspective. It was as though the whole world had been napping and had finally opened her eyes. My lens widened.

When I visited my doctor to get relief for my numb fingers and pained wrists, she joked that pregnant women get carpel tunnel too. I regained my humor and laughed as she fitted me with ugly wrists supports. I knew I would go home to the computer in the corner and read up on the condition, ergonomically correct ways to sit at my desk and how to minimize the pain.

I had to be sure nothing would hinder me from holding, changing and feeding our baby when we met her in China.

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