78 Pages and a Sprinkle


“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” Ann Lamott

The challenge is complete. Last night, at midnight, the NaNoWriMo challenge officially ended, and not a moment too soon. Though I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed the act of sitting down daily to write, pushing myself to think of memories that don’t always come readily, like the time I broke my arm sliding down the slide wearing sweater tights, or how my brother kept saying “my feet are nice and moist,” when he got a concussion mopping the floors with his sock clad feet while I was his high-school babysitter. I have no idea the quality of the writing, or the quality of the memories, but somehow, bit by bit I wrote, daily, to complete a whopping 78 pages plus a few little sprinkles. I used three wheels of ink for the typewriter, and a partial ream of paper that I might have ‘borrowed’ from the office copier. Living dangerously on borrowed paper.

Today I borrowed a few more pages, and made myself a photocopy of the original. Because someday I’m going to want to revisit this ‘masterpiece,’ and do some edits. Or maybe that’s overly ambitious the day after the challenge is over. Maybe I’m always looking forward to new projects. A year barefoot. A year without shopping, or buying books. Three years without shaving any body hair. 30 days of yoga in a summertime. A month of daily writing, 78 pages later. A few tiny accomplishments, which leads me to my new favorite podcast, A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment, by Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter, two Spokane poets. Sherman’s on my mind a lot since I’m teaching one of his novels next quarter.

Maybe I’ll look over these stories in the springtime. Read them. Edit them. See where they can be tweaked and shaped into something new. For now they’ll go in my folder of completed words that live a life unseen by the public, unlike this blog.

Bearing Witness to Student’s Lived Experience

In the past few weeks I have realized something: my job as an instructor/adviser is just as hard as it was as a crisis counselor. Though the schedule is much easier, the fact that I am simply in a position to bear witness to lives, rather than be the person to actively help seek the resources and see immediate change, is where the exhaustion is coming in. I know that I was built for this work, but lately there are several students who have been heavy on my heart. So heavy that I downloaded Anne Lamott’s new book Stitches and am flipping through it, because she talks about the utter fuckedupness of the world and how we stand and face all the cruelty in situations that often don’t have any ‘meaning’ (she cites the Newton shooting, for example.) Her words give me comfort.

So I’m nestled in my pajamas, at 4:30 pm on a Wednesday, drinking red wine and watching Jake & The Neverland Pirates with Potamus and musing about the fate of my students. And I’m sad, and angry (at parents and schools that have failed my students) and excited and proud, but also this feeling that is deeper than all of that, something about awe and heartache mixed with immense fear and hope. It’s hard to express adequately, ya know?

This week I had a student tell me that in their photography class they were instructed to take “street shots” and so they were in a piss-filled alley taking photos of graffiti. And they struck up a conversation with a homeless man, who spilled his life story, and after an hour the photographer moved on to a different location…getting two blocks away before they heard screams. And when they turned back into the alley, the homeless man had been stabbed to death by someone on drugs. A man who had previously lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and had chosen the homeless lifestyle, donating all of his posessions to charity, in order to “start over.” If heaven exists then maybe he’s met by his daughter and wife, but only minutes before my 17 year old student had been chatting with him, taking his photo. And then he was dead, just like that. And my student witnessed it.

How do you make sense of that? How do I hold the space for that story, for the emotions that go with it, without trying to solve it or make it all magically better?

What about the student who told me they missed class last week because they were arrested and with 1 week until their 18th birthday are most likely going to be charged as an adult and sent to prison? This student who I found on the news was selling close to 300 “molly” and crystal meth pills at a local rave. My student fessed up to their actions, but still? And school is the best option for them right now, but my heart is heavy because prison is the real deal and all the hard work to get on the right track were blown in a night.

How do I hold that?

And the students who have been writing about their drug addictions and the process of getting clean. Or their experience being in lockdown psych wards for psychotic breaks. Or the 11 concussions and expulsion from high school because they didn’t pass their class but no teacher gave any accommodations for the sports related injuries. My students are struggling with SO MANY things. And they come every day, and write about SMART goals, and learn study habits, and sometimes they do it when they haven’t eaten for a day or two, or don’t know where they’re going to live.

I admire their tenacity. Their ability to rise above the challenges that no kid should have to face…homelessness, drug addictions, abuse, mental illness, physical illness, natural disasters, etc. I bear witness and have to sit with their stories and know that maybe that is enough. When I can’t do anything but smile at them, and tell them hello, and hear their lives in a way that many educators haven’t done in the past. Is it enough? I have no idea. But I hope that it makes some small difference…

When You Were Inside Mommy

I bought this book awhile ago, in hopes to start the readings early with Potamus. I also bought a book about having another baby, but loaned that to a friend, since there’s no need for me to read a story about something that’s not happening lately. And it’s a book that Potamus has asked me to read a few times, sitting through the whole story, and patting my belly when I talk about how he used to live inside me. This is a very easy and sweet book for little ones to understand, but I have noticed so many feelings as I read it.

Because I never had books read to me like this. In fact, it wasn’t until I was an adult, and working with a gal who was pregnant, did I really come into close contact with pregnancy. Nobody I knew was pregnant, nobody talked about pregnancy other than “don’t get pregnant before you’re married.” So reading this story, and seeing how connected Potamus is to it, it made me think about my childhood. How I was the kid who answered “offices” when asked “where do babies come from?” How I felt growing up that I had just sorta ‘dropped from the sky’ and had no physical connection to my mom. It feels so different with Potamus. I am sitting there, reading a generic story about pregnancy, and I’m nodding along like “yes, you were as small as a dot. yes, you were inside mommy’s womb, right there,” as I point where my belly button is. I just wonder if I had been read stories like this as a child if I would have felt less…hatched. And then I wonder if I would have just been even more confused, as to why I grew in someone else’s belly.

I know, now, that there are more books for young adoptees, though I’m often put off by the ‘special chosen child that God put in someone else’s belly for us’ storyline that they seem to follow. But who’s going to write a children’s book about a teen who gets knocked up and they decide to give the kid to adoption because they don’t want their families fighting over custody? Yeah, that one might be hard to pitch…

I guess I was surpised. I though that since I had been pregnant, and enjoyed it, and am bonded and love having had Potamus naturally, that I would have been peaceful and love reading that story. But it makes me wistfully sad for the connection in stories that I didn’t have growing up.

Any children’s books do you read that make you feel emotions you were unprepared for?

Adoptees in Fiction

Comment on how adoption is portrayed in fiction, either as a fiction reader or writer. Adoption in classic fiction often centers on the orphan experience, from Oliver Twist and Little Men, to orphan Jane Eyre living with her aunt and cousins. Today there’s the Twilight series and others that use adoption to explain “families” comprised of various vampires. Talk about other examples of adoption used as a plot device in fiction. What types of adoption stories or adopted characters have resonated with you? Or haven’t? Are the feelings and experiences described authentically, accurately? 

I was obsessed with orphan storylines as a kid. Some of my favorite books included: The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, and Anne of Green Gables. I know now, as an adult, that I was drawn to these storylines because I was trying to work out some of my own feelings around abandonment and family and perseverance.

Even the games that I played as a kid were storylines around adoption. So my siblings and I were always playing, “orphans” or “lost kids,” where we had been separated from our family and we were trying to get “home.” I wonder if my parent’s had psychological training they might have noticed these play themes and gotten us counseling, but, alas, they did not. When I met Boof he was surprised that my childhood was spent playing “orphanage,” as that storyline never crossed his mind as something to play pretend when he and his sisters were children.

But it seems like, since the dawn of time, stories of orphans have been popular. Mythology, folklore, fairy-tales…Disney. From Oedipus to Romulus/Remus, to Mowgli from the Jungle Book or Little Orphan Annie, Harry Potter or Superman, there is something appealing to people…and I think it’s about overcoming hardship and the search for identity and home and family. Characters being separated tragically from their family from a young age provides a great backdrop for exploring the themes of identity and perseverance, that can’t as easily be found in other storylines. Like the Alex Haley quote goes:

“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we came from.”

The adoptee storyline in fiction is one of the reasons that I resonated so deeply with BJ Lifton’s A Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness. In the book she looks at myth and fictional adoptees and shows how it is quite the archetypal character.

I wonder what other examples of orphans/adoptees/adoptive families can be found in literature. What list could we come up with if we put our brains together?

Adoption Narrative Prompt

Describe the story your adoptive parents told you growing up. What age were you? What feelings and questions did you have about this “adoption narrative”? Was it a satisfying explanation for you? Explain. As an adult, whether or not you are in reunion, comment on how much of that story turned out to be true. Has your adoption narrative changed? What story, if any, do you share with friends, acquaintances?

I am two years older than my a-brother, and have vague memories of him entering our family. I’m told this is when I was given the adoption narrative by my parents, but honestly, I have no concrete memories of this actually happening. I tell people, “I always knew,” and when my a-sister came along, I was 6, and answering the question (where do babies come from?) with “offices.”

The story I was told was that my parents were too young to keep me. While my adoption was legally “close” (in ability to get identifying information or access my records), it was “semi-open,” in that once a year I received a birthday/Christmas gift, a card, and sometimes a few pictures. I don’t remember the feeling around my own narrative, but I do remember feeling shame around receiving gifts every year, because, unlike my siblings’ families, mine was always consistent and they stopped getting gifts when they were little kids. I remember one year, I think I was twelve, where I found a package under my parent’s bed (I had been snooping because it was the first year I hadn’t gotten a gift, and I was feeling panicky), and my a-mom told me that she hadn’t wanted me to open it because it “makes your brother and sister feel bad.”

As an adult, I think the most striking thing about my adoption narrative is: a) how much it ACTUALLY fits the dominate adoption-myth-narrative, and b) how much information was left out…the negative or white space, that could have painted a much different picture if I had known.

Like, I had no idea until I was in reunion that my dad was still in the picture 3 years after my relinquishment, or that both families actually wanted me raised with them (my maternal grandparents, paternal uncle). I had never been led to think about my father, as I had simply gone with the negative/white space storyline that he was a deadbeat. I was surpised by reunion to find out how sad it really feels to meet my mother, who is still, clearly addicted to drugs and alcohol.

I think one of the hardest things about my narrative is when I talk with the general public about my desire for family preservation, open access to records, limiting adoptions, eliminating the baby-buying mindset, and acknowledging the grief and pain and voices of adoptees, because my story fits the “crackwhore young birthmom” narrative. It feels invalidating to say, on one hand, I have been “blessed” by the adoptive life I’ve lived, and yet, on the other hand, I wish I wasn’t adopted.