The Day Before Retreat
I woke up at 3:35 a.m. yesterday in Boston, Massachusetts, and landed in Davis, California, at 4:09 p.m (which, I badly want to remind you, was 7:09 p.m. my time). Someone once wrote a criticism of our adoptee retreats, of the fact that we charge money for them, because she said, something along the lines of, What’s so hard about doing an adoptee retreat, anyway? What do you need besides space?
Getting together with just space is called hanging out. Or standing in line.
Last year I asked Pam to create with me the thing I needed: something for adopted people that focused on community, healing, empowerment, self-acceptance, and a deep sense of belonging. More than a retreat, I wanted a forward.
I’d been in retreat from so many things since the moment I was born: mostly I lived in a state of retreat from my self. You want to feel lonely and lost? Walk around the world avoiding the person closest to you. Think about how you could hurt her. Hate her. Keep her hidden so the rest of the world can’t hate her as much as you do. Hang out in space with other people and still feel alone.
I have noticed that so many things happen to people when, at almost any stage in their life, one or both parents breaks the call and response bond. When a baby is born, it cries and the parent feeds her. When a teenager phones her parents from a party, drunk, saying she needs a safe ride home, when an adult goes home to recover from a new divorce and needs the wordless acceptance of her parents, the children of parents are saying help me, see me, be there for me. These asks aren’t always verbal. They aren’t even always obvious. But they are so important. They are the call.
The response comes when the parent sees the child (or adult), sees the need, and acts to meet it. This creates a feeling of safety in the child, whatever age the child happens to be. When the need is not met, when the parent scolds, doesn’t listen, doesn’t show up, doesn’t recognize the importance of the call, the child can go into some form of refusal—of the self, of the parent, of relationships, of the world in general.
I think one reason I feel compelled to work as a writing coach, as a story midwife, is that I can see the refusals in people—I hear the call—and I feel it is my job to respond, to help waken these people to the belief that what they want to say can be said, needs to be said for their own health as well as for the health of the larger world. I want people to feel how important they are. I want them to see that we are not separate. That what hurts you, hurts me. I want them to understand life goes by so quickly and we have this one shot at feeling really good in our bodies, and that we can wreck the whole thing by choosing to say no, by choosing to stay quiet, small, angry, hurt
When I taught college, sometimes I would have everyone read their work out loud for a couple of minutes. The sound was like a musical wave or some strange applause. Every time I would hear the class read like this I wouldn’t be able to stop smiling. We were creating the sound of a university. We were creating the sound of the brain, of the will, of life. The sound was a reminder to students that they were part of something larger and, equally, that their voice mattered. Many single voices make oceans of sound that carve into the world and change its shape.
I am in Davis now to do a Beyond Adoption: You retreat with Pam Cordano. I walked into her house last night and was filled with joy. We have had a number of adoptee retreats here as well as a creativity retreat. Love happens in this house. Acceptance. Change. Insight. Laughter. Tears. Friendship. I stood in the front door and I could almost hear the noise of previous retreats. It was like everyone was still there, just in different rooms, so while I couldn’t see them, I could feel their presence, and it made me feel so lucky to be alive.
Pam and I talk about the retreats for hours every week. We are committed to figuring out how to transcend the struggles and difficult mind/body states we have been experiencing all our lives as adoptees. We are committed to helping others do the same. We know it’s possible to change because our friendship, one adoptee meeting another adoptee, radically changed both of us. I am in so much pain was replaced by What can I, what can we, do next? and the world became less about survival and more about the joy of community.
If I hadn’t let myself, finally (at 50!), write something about adoption, I wouldn’t have been invited by the fabulously famous author to stay in her N.Y.C. apartment so I could write a book about being an adoptee. If I hadn’t written the book, I wouldn’t have known how much being relinquished and adopted had affected me. If I hadn’t known that, I wouldn’t have listened to the podcast Adoptees On by Haley Radke. If I hadn’t listened to that show, I wouldn’t have written to Haley and told her I was her #1 fan. If I hadn’t written my book and written to Haley, I wouldn’t have been a guest on her show and Pam Cordano wouldn’t have heard me talk about Write or Die and booked a session with me. If she hadn’t booked a session, we wouldn’t have met a month later and become friends. If we hadn’t become friends, I wouldn’t have thought that hanging out with other adoptees might be an empowering thing instead of being a pathetic grief bath (yes! That’s how I thought! That’s how highly I respected my own feelings of grief before I came out of the fog!). If we hadn’t created the adoptee retreats, there are so many of my now-favorite people that I would never have even MET!!
That is so unthinkable!! What would my life even be like without my tribe?
Tomorrow a new retreat starts. The last one had people from, I think, nine different states. People commit time and resources to come to these retreats, and Pam and I take this very, very seriously. We see it as a crucial part of our life’s work. We heard the call of each other, responded, and began to thrive in ways we hadn’t known were possible. After a lifetime of watching professional tennis players hit amazing shots back and forth, it felt like we’d finally become those players, for when you meet someone who understands the way your brain works, anything is possible. It’s all about game on.
We also heard the call of the adoptee community and we are responding. So many people are responding to the call: Amy Geller, Pam Kroskie, Lesli Johnson, Eryn McEwan Seavey, Sherrie Eldridge, April Dinwoodie, Ridgehaus, Derek Frank, Joyce Maguire Paveo, Pam Greenstone, Marci Purcell. Shoot. I knew there would be problems if I started a list. There are so many important people not here. Really important. Life changers. People I love.
However, the fact remains that too many adoptees are deeply suffering in their lives, in their relationships, in their own skin. The world thinks finding a baby a “forever home” is the beautiful end to a story when, in fact, it is part of a complicated set of circumstances that, I believe, damage a baby’s brain development, and sense of safety and well-being.
And so I retreat with Pam and small group of others.
Can you imagine you are a fish who has lived in a tank with water that is three degrees either too hot or too cold for your system and then, one day, you travel to another tank where the water exactly matches your core temperature? Suddenly there’s so much NOT to notice. So much discomfort that IS NOT PRESENT. It’s like letting go of a pencil after unconsciously gripping it for a day or like taking off a pair of a size-too-small pants. It’s like kicking off your concrete shoes and running in a new pair of Nikes. Oh, the ease of like-minded community!! The relief. The joy. The doors that swing open. The pain that exits.
When I met Pam, the temperature in my world started to better match my own. All you need is one true friend to start the domino effect of I belong. A sense of belonging leads to generosity. If you feel cared for and about, you have more space to care for and about others. The hungry ghost morphs into a source of power and inspiration for the larger community. Miracles happen. Love rules the roost. Kindness sits in the driver’s seat.
So even though it took me a full day to get here, by the day’s end I was euphoric. Yes, getting here was both expensive and physically taxing, but true adventure is a journey not a picnic. Change and growth involve effort and a willingness to sit with discomfort. For adoptees in particular, stepping out of what feels familiar and known can be a challenge. But what if we are bolstered by the communal strength of others to find our own? What if we, as adoptees, act as a tribe that exists for the well-being of all touched by early mother loss, and, by proxy, for the well-being of all?
Don’t you see that, as April Dinwoodie argues, adoptees have so much to teach the world?
The adoptees are coming. I can hear them packing their bags, packing snacks for the road, kissing loved ones goodbye.
They are leaving what they know for someplace new because they believe things can be better. Because they have hearts that beat out a wild hope that life can, finally, feel like home.
And so they are on their way.