Community and Voice
It started with the track team in high school. Suddenly, I had a group of people who had a common goal: to become better runners; to win. We were there for each other. We worked hard; we laughed a lot; we shared stories; we cried. A handful of us went to Papa Gino’s once and ate pizza when we were supposed to be out running and we all sat silently in the back of the coach’s car when he drove out to see how we were doing and found us full of pizza, walking and laughing. He was not impressed. But it bonded us even more as a group. We could withstand his silent anger because we were a wall of us. Our group kept us safe. I went to classes just so I could go to track.
I never formed this community in college. All my self-doubt and my struggle to both leave home and stay home formed a wall between me and a potential community. For the first time in my life, the subtle feeling of being an outsider because of my adoption (not something I probably would have even been able to articulate at the time, hence the problem) was made real and I couldn’t find a way back in.
This lead to the belief that I was not on the right path. I felt lost. I was all over the place. For years. Decades. What was wrong with me? I was not the only person asking myself this question. On the surface I seemed to have it all: I was smart, funny, nice (sort of), pretty, athletic. What was wrong? Why did I keep dropping out of college? Why did I keep giving away what was valuable (who sells TWO engagement rings while still married)? Why did I keep getting in debt? Why did I get into relationship after relationship just to have them flame out? Why wasn’t I living up to my potential?
I found my people at the MFA program at the University of Oregon. It was like the track team all over again, only I didn’t have to sweat. I could just sit and talk about books and the written word. In the writing workshops I was invited to use my voice and people were actually listening. But then this happened: I saw that maybe I didn’t have a voice. Or that the voice I possessed had nothing to say. I saw that even though I felt full of words, it was like a false pregnancy and so, when faced with the page, nothing came out. I graduated, never called myself a writer. I was Anne. Just Anne. Anne who was born Sarah (but who was then adopted and named Anne and Sarah became a silent name, something expected to disappear). I got married, had a real-life baby, and dreamed about the day I would figure out how to find the way in to write.
But here’s what happened to change all of that: I joined a group.
I went to Laura Munson’s Haven writer’s retreat in Montana and, for the first time, read a story about being adopted. It was something that I read almost in jest, a story I had written for children, and what I saw shocked me: some of the people listening were moved to tears. I didn’t know this story mattered. My mother hadn’t wanted me to talk about adoption because, in her mind, she was the mother. The only mother. My story disrupted her story, and so I learned to stay quiet.
I went home and my nephew took a video of me reading this story out loud and I posted it on YouTube. This was the single most dangerous and radical, in my mind, thing I had ever done. I was breaking the silence.
And then things got wild.
The author of The Help, in an amazing act of generosity, offered me her East Village apartment for a few weeks so I could work on my story (a few weeks that turned into two and a half months). I was accepted into the Noepe Center’s writing retreat on Martha’s Vineyard. I combined the two things and ended up staying on the East Coast for 93 days. I called the trip Write or Die. I truly thought that writing about adoption might kill me, but I didn’t care any more because it didn’t even feel like a choice. I’d used up all the other options in my life and I felt like I would die if I stayed. So I just went for it.
The second was that I was making a community. It seemed like everywhere I went in New York and Martha’s Vineyard, I made a new friend. When you are yourself, when you are just speaking your truth, life becomes so much easier. You become a better listener, for one, because you aren’t dealing with the internal struggle of what the heck am I supposed to say? You just are. You listen. You think. You process new information and you think about how it makes you feel, what it makes you think. And then you share your thoughts. And you find you are not alone.
As I wrote You Don’t Look Adopted, I found I was not alone. That I am my both voice and audience. I listen not only to others, but to myself. And my community continues to build, much to my amazement and joy.
I think that living is like that, being adopted is like that, having a voice is like that: if you are real, if you are really looking, really listening, really communicating, you are on the edge of tears, and this is scary for a lot of people. We like happy. We like easy. But easy isn’t always real. Part of deep joy is the realization that we are a breath away from death. Part of community is the fear of isolation. And yet here we are, and I wish you all good things. Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.