Running the Race with One Leg
In many ways, this past year since I finished writing a memoir about being adopted has been the worst year of my life. Eleven months, not quite a year. Okay, okay, maybe more like ten months. You get the idea: I wrote about adoption and then my life did not get easier.
When I was a small child, I had the fantasy that my birth mother was a queen and that one day she was going to come get me. The usual thing to do when you are an adoptee and you say something that could be hurtful to the parents who adopted you is to say something really nice about them, so I will follow form: It wasn’t that I didn’t love my mom and dad. I did. Very much. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be their daughter: I was their daughter so there wasn’t much to dispute. Even my (second) birth certificate said they were my parents, so look at me as a train that was not running smoothly on my tracks. I just wanted to not fly off the rails, and the queen seemed part of that.
That means I wanted to both stay and go. That is a very familiar feeling to me. If A is true, you can bet B probably is true also. The beauty of adoption is a person’s ability to be everything at once. Everyone.
If I’m really honest with myself I hoped the queen would come rescue me after I wrote what I’d been carrying inside my whole life: the story of a confused self. I’d been so afraid of how damaging it would be for me to write about my thoughts and feelings people in my immediate family had not wanted to talk about for any length of time (anything over about ten seconds) because who wants to hear that a person who looks normal feels like she 1. is insane 2. is dying of some unnamable physical malady 3. wishes she could disappear (or appear) 4. can’t focus 5. can’t commit 6. will die when you go out the door 7. etc.? But then I did it, I wrote those things, and I didn’t die, but I sure did feel exposed.
The first few months after I published my book, I would wake up at 1 a.m. in a panic. People knew. I had nothing left to hide behind. No constructed stories. No false selves. I’d said what it was like to be adopted, and the queen still hadn’t come to save me. I was still just standing there, alone and in trouble. I slept in fits and starts.
My family tolerated the book. There were no celebrations, no Hallmark “good job” cards. It was like I’d farted in church and now I was going to have to sit in my own stink for a while.
Why is it that I am comparing writing about adoption to farting? Well, for one thing, it’s commonly believed to be more polite to hold both in. Both are embarrassing. Both are bi-products of an action.
I believe writing about adoption should be compared to writing about Ulysses or Odysseus. I believe to be adopted is to be heroic, for who among you has lost everything and still survived? Who among you has done this before you could even stand up? Hello, heroes.
However, the queen didn’t come get me, and I’m not living on Mount Olympus. In some ways I felt like I was up shit’s creek. But then last week I was in Albany at the New York State Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition to talk about adoption and writing, and I got to meet some amazing people. I was sitting across the table from a fellow adoptee, and I was listening to her talk, watching her eat her soup, and I realized something in my bones: our stories did not start when we were born. They did not start when we were conceived. Our stories started when we were stars. When we were dust.
What I saw in this woman’s face was starlight, a beauty so clear and bright it made me thirsty. I realized that the pain and confusion I carried was due in part to the misunderstanding of when my story started. I came to see that it started long before the day I was born. I came to see I was only focusing on a small part of my story, and this focus was causing me to not see the glory of the opportunity this walk on the planet offered me. I didn’t have to be, as Mary Oliver said, good. I did not have to walk on my knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. I only had to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. (Forgive me, Mary, for playing with your perfect words: they were delicious.)
I’m not saying being relinquished doesn’t matter. It matters just the way it matters when a man runs a race with one leg. The stump is going to change the nature of the race. But it’s still a race, and, if we want—we who were adopted—we get to run. We get to be ourselves. We get to spend our lives figuring out who ourself even is, for, as an adopted person, that is often the mission of this life: to find one’s self. And, I believe, it is a noble mission, equal to striving to be C.E.O. or, say, pit boss.
After I gave my talk in Albany, a 60-year-old woman stood in front of me, her spine straight, the tears running down her face. “Why can’t I stop asking why my mother left?” she said to me. “It has been fifty years, and I can’t stop thinking about it.” This woman with the straight back and the wet face had come to my talk because she wanted to write about her mother leaving but didn’t know how.
So here’s everything I know about writing and adoption:
The how of writing about adoption is by starting where you are. Just write what is on your mind. “Where is she? Why did she leave? Who am I? What should I have for dinner?” The why of writing about adoption is so you can honor your own voice and questions. The when is, of course, now.
The queen may well not show up, but the stars are bound to come out. And that’s when things really get rocking.
I guess it's not that this year has been one of the worst. I think it was just more of a Velveteen Rabbit kind of year. And I'm not used to real. Or at least I wasn't. And just as hate is another version of love, worst is another form of best.
It is true. In many ways, this past year has been the best year of my life. There has been so much love. So much sweetness.
The stars. The words. The family. The child. Home.
Words change everything.