Shannon Peck and Art and Adoption
When I was younger, I used to fantasize about the future because it was a better place. In the same way I wouldn’t close a fashion magazine until there was a face of a model I’d rather be than myself, when I lay down to sleep at night or when I let my mind make movies of what could be, I pictured the future as other. Me, but better. Different.
Something happened, though, about the time I turned 50. About the time my mother (both mothers) died, about the time I hit perimenopause, about the time my daughter left for college, about the time I got divorced for a second time and moved for maybe the 50th time: the future darkened and became, not a picture or a wild rush of hope, but a faded space, like the screen on a busted television. I couldn’t find the belief in me for better, and while this may sound like the goal of a mindfulness practice: Be here now, it felt like the despair I felt as a student when I would get a paper back and there was a big red C (or D! or F!) on the top.
This is also when I started feeling what it was to be adopted. This was when I was able to imagine what it was like to be a baby and to be born and to never touch the surface of the planet from which you came, the planet your mind doesn’t know is not you.
An adopted person was talking to me recently about touch. About how she needs to feel contained—and so, for example, she can never sleep naked; she always needs pajamas to keep her “held.” We talked about how, even though she wants body contact, she is almost always the one to break a hug first for the contact quickly becomes overwhelming, unbearable.
It’s so strange to want to be with people but to have that need not met by being with people. The word “lonely” doesn’t exactly cover the feeling because lonely makes it sound like you don’t have friends or family, and that’s not the issue for me as an adopted person, or as, I guess, just a person. I have more friends than I can count, and my family, thanks to adoption, is constantly growing as I uncover my roots.
One synonym for “lonely” is “uninhabited.” Now we are getting closer. It doesn’t matter how tightly someone holds me, how often they say they love me, it doesn’t hit the itch. And here, I recently have imagined, is why: I’m not all here. There is a common belief that when we die, our souls leave our body. Clearly, you have to believe in souls to follow this belief, and I like the idea we are more than the mechanistic beating of our heart and the leaping synapses of our brain, so I’m sticking with the belief that there is something else in us, something eternal.
When I was born, I was part of something: I was a unit of mother and child. That unit, for the child (and, I would argue, for the mother) is complete. The cord is cut, not by the mother (typically) and not by the child, but by a third party. The whole universe silences around the mother keeping the child alive and warm by holding and feeding it. That is how we as a species continue to thrive: we feed from the ground from which we sprang. (I’m not arguing against bottle feeding—home still smells and sounds like home.)
The child’s skin is the mother’s skin, and the child is moving from a world of liquid to a world of air, but the mother is there to settle the child’s nervous system, to let this new being know everything will be okay. I am here.
Another synonym for lonely is “off the beaten path.” To be taken from your mother before you understand (and this takes nearly a year) that you and she are not the same creature, creates grooves in your brain (I believe) that children who were not relinquished do not have. It makes you different. And yet you have no mark. No visible scar. And so you look the same as every other baby that was born of a mother. And it doesn’t just have to do with babies and mothers. Children and mothers, adolescents and mothers. The separation is not natural.
I think, for me, my life before 50 was a sugar rush. And this isn’t really metaphorical. I started using sugar to elevate my mood when I was very young. Diet Coke came into the picture when I went to college. That stuff got me high. Diet Coke and peanut M&M’s? Whoa. The perfect antidote for twenty minutes or so until the crash happens, to the dis-ease I always carried inside. Being too high to feel was wonderful. (How I am not an alcoholic and drug addict is a miracle. Partly, I think, it’s because I get high so easily. Drugs and alcohol just knock me over.)
But at 50 the sugar and Diet Coke stopped working. The high didn’t come. They left me headachy and unhappy, the very feelings I’d been trying to run from when I’d gone to the market.
And so I finally faced what it meant to feel alone even when I was surrounded by people, even when someone held me tight and said they would never let go. Facing the grief of relinquishment hurt so much sometimes I thought I might die. The hurt wasn’t like a knife wound; it was like the universe was trying to suck me back into the vortex of nothingness, and it was fear and the fight to stay that was painful, it was a pain born of fatigue and despair. It’s still like that. I’ll have days, weeks, where I’ll feel just fine, and then out of the blue, there it is: the suck, and I get so sad. I don’t want to have those feelings. They drag me down and they scare me. It seems they will hang around forever. I want a way out. I want a different life.
I’ve been following Shannon Peck on Instagram for a while now. I had no idea who she was or what she was doing, but I watched her through her photographs, for months, stitch images of fetuses on cloth, and then I watched her make the fetuses three dimensional, watched her make umbilical cords of cloth, watched her stuff the fetuses into jars, watched her exhibit her pieces in a gallery. Who is speck_surface_design? I asked myself, and what the heck is she doing?
So I wrote and asked if we could talk.
After our phone conversation, I believed even more strongly in the power of art’s ability to transform the trauma that comes with relinquishment, that comes from the early separation of mother and child. I believe art is the way to different.
Stitching is a form of creation and therefore of existing. Each time the needle pierces the cloth, there is a visceral experience of being alive. Shannon leaves her mark on the cloth, tiny stiches that add up to body parts, to babies, to words.
How do you express thoughts that have no language? How do you say, I think I lost my soul when I was born or I miss a mother I have only touched from the inside? How do you feel empowered in a life where you were created and then, without the world’s acknowledging the actual facts, often sold and purchased?
Shannon said of her most recent project, Disconnected, the one I’d been following, “This is me having children without the heartache.”
She told me about people’s reactions as they had gone through her previous exhibit, Your daughter is in good hands. To her surprise, Many people, both men and women, both adopted and not, cried. One man had to walk out, and even though he wanted to go back, he couldn’t. His emotions were running too high. And this is what art can do: transfer feelings that can’t always be worded from one person to another.
It will make a difference if the world understands emotionally and viscerally what it feels like to be adopted. It will make a difference because maybe there will be a time when a woman is supported and given the chance to keep her child instead of being told it will be better for everyone if she gives it to someone else. It will make a difference if an adopted child is getting trouble in school for not behaving and no one understands there is a fire alarm going off in his head 24/7 signally that something catastrophic happened and will probably happen again.
When I asked Shannon how she felt since first realizing she’d been affected by her adoption and addressing the feelings by going to therapy and creating her art, she said, “I feel like a totally different person. The four years of working on myself, and my work and coming out of the fog—that gave me the courage to leave my job because I’m someone who needs safety and structure. This all gave me the courage. I love the flexibility I have now. I will never ever go to work behind a desk again.”
I am wondering if you can create a soul from cloth and thread. I am wondering if you can create a soul with words. If God made woman from a rib, can Shannon and I, can you, create a sense of being with hands and materials?
Although Shannon has yet to meet her birth mother, she has learned that her birth mother also loves to sew. Is creating art for adoptees a way to find home? To find the soul of our lives?
I used to tell my writing partner, when we worked on screenplays, the writing was torturous for me. Each sentence felt like I was pulling barbed wire from my guts. When you don’t feel confident in your sense of self, expressing yourself creatively can feel dangerous. What if you say something wrong? What if everyone hates you? What if you hate yourself? How can you speak or write or make art when you don’t know who you are? It’s like a headless person trying to see herself in a mirror.
Increasingly, writing feels like water to me, and that, I believe that is the different I have been looking for. The different is when I look in instead of out.
It’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, or like every story ever told about a person looking for home: it’s right there. Right here.
When you are adopted, the world is torn open and it often requires a lot of work, maybe a lifetime, in order to know your name, your place in the world, your voice. When you are adopted and do art, miracles happen. (When you are not adopted and do art, miracles happen. I mean, hello, have you been inside the Sistene Chapel? Or looked at drawings in a second grade classroom?)
When I wrote my book, I found my voice and more family. Things started getting stitched together, including my sense of self. When I saw Shannon’s work on Instagram, I also felt myself coming together. I recognized something in her work: beauty, love, tenaciousness, a cry for understanding, and in that recognition comes the sigh of home.
I hope Shannon’s birth mother sees her daughter’s work and finds the courage to reach out. From my experience, many birth mothers and fathers don’t understand how it affects their child’s brain and body when they refuse contact. We are stitched together. We share DNA.
We are your creation.