The Unbearable Being in Lightness or Notes after Retreat
I ran the mile in high school and learned to focus on the third lap because the first and second laps took care of themselves and the fourth lap had the light at the end of the tunnel, but the third lap was the dark place, the place of This is so hard, the place of I might die. The third lap required grit, determination, faith, and will. I kept running because, even though I didn’t feel it or see it, I knew the finish line was out there in the future.
This weekend Pam Cordano and I had one of our Beyond Adoption: You retreats, and after watching twelve other adopted people gather, make friends, tell stories, cry, and laugh, I realized that while I had thought I was on the fourth lap in my life, really I was just turning the corner on the third.
I can’t tell you how beautiful these twelve people were because then I would have to get specific, and these retreats are private affairs. What I can tell you is that I spent four days watching twelve people at some point or another suffer deeply because their own light was so painful for them.
Individuating can be terrifying. We are pack creatures; we live in tribes; we identity ourselves by the names given to us by another; we go online looking for community, connection, a feeling of belonging, we are one nation indivisible. and yet we dye our hair blue, we say I am not like him, we pierce ourselves, tattoo our bodies, build houses to look like rocket ships, all so we can feel seen or somehow feel more ourselves and less like everyone else.
How do we both belong to a group and exist as ourselves? This question is particularly meaningful when you were given up at birth and taken in by members of a tribe that can give you their name but not their DNA. If a zebra were taken in by a family of storks, the zebra would likely spend a fair amount of energy covering up its stripes, tail, and two extra legs. Not to mention its lips. The zebra would be living in a land where what was valued was stork. Storks are beautiful. Zebras are beautiful. But when you (used to) watch a Miss America Beauty Contest, there wasn’t a Miss America who weighed 350 pounds or who was less than four feet tall. If you squint your eyes at the lineup of contestants, they all look pretty much the same. Being Miss America isn’t about being an individual: it’s about being considered number one of that type of creature.
What I noticed on this retreat was that the twelve participants were stars. I know we are all special in our own way, but these people rocked it. They were life times ten. You know how some people are visiting the planet and some people are here to change it? These were twelve changers. Only there was something that had brought most of them to Berkeley to gather with us: their lightness was painful because it had originated from a source that had almost immediately disappeared. These people were stars because their light was so bright, and because this light was costing them something: with the light came the liability of standing out, of being seen as different, and therefore, of not being loved.
It can be hard to believe in your own light when there is nothing like it around you. People shine, sure, but not in the same way you do. Not, that is, until you get with a group of people who share your DNA or who have had deeply similar early life experiences, and your light stops aching in exactly the same way because part of you senses you are now with your people and it is okay to be who you are, whoever that it. The zebra can love her stork family, but when a pack of zebras run by, the lone zebra is going to get a jolt of relief and joy: Yo! My people! Can I run with you? Can I stretch my four legs and let my tail swat flies? I love your lips!
If the zebra choses to run, he feels the agony of letting his stork family see his true nature, the powers he has been trying to mold into forms more acceptable, more stork-like, all for the primitive need to belong, to feel part of something larger, to feel safe, accepted, loved, at home in the world. So in this amazing moment of connection for the zebra there is also the stunning rip of loss.
There is a lot of laughing at these adoptee retreats, but there is also a lot of crying. There is the pain in realizing just how hard we have tried to fit in, to make others happy. There is the recognition of how much fury and heartbreak we carry. There is the fear of stepping into our true selves, fear we will never find that self, fear we won’t be accepted if we do. There are tears because trying is effort and effort is tiring, and we are tired of living lives where the light we carry may feel dangerous or threatening to those we most love.
So much of this mirrors the human condition. It’s just that much more intense for adopted people because, right off the bat, we did lose everything. While everyone else is living with fears of all the terrible things that could happen, adoptees know in their bodies what it feels like when the most unthinkable think does happen, and they live with the fear that it could happen again, and they know it will be all their fault: they just don’t know exactly why. Anything could make the worst happen. The world is so dangerous. We are so dangerous.
What I want to tell you is that I have a lump on my spine and I don’t have health insurance. Part of me thought, This is what you deserve, and this is when I realized I am on the third lap of my life. I thought that writing my story, speaking my truth after a lifetime of hiding was the fourth lap. I thought that now I could help others do the same and live happily ever after, but I have discovered that I haven’t even started to do the heavy lifting of claiming my self.
It’s one thing to say what you’re not, to fight against whatever constraints you or others have put on your life, but it’s another thing to live in your truth and assume the value of your own light and fight for its right to be in the world. That is the chop wood carry water part. I exist, therefore I am going to care for myself. I am my own child, and if I can’t care for her, how can I possibly truly show up for anyone else?
It’s amazing how hard it is for me to truly value myself just because 53 years ago a young woman was unprepared to care for a child and chose the best path she could see: to have the child and give it to a couple who desperately wanted a baby to call their own. Why, at 53, does this still make me cry? Why does this still make me want to disappear? Why does it make this lump on my back a possible doorway out? I don’t have to claim myself, after all. I can just bow out of the game. I don’t have to be a zebra. I can die an ostrich.
This past weekend I saw twelve stars crying. I also saw them laughing. It was like watching a creature right before they are about to come down the birth canal, feeling the agony of the squeeze, the terror of the darkness ahead, and the wild hope for the life that was going to open up for them on the other side.
I keep thinking I have been born again and then I see that I’m still coming down the tube. This is such a long journey.
Headed home from the retreat in Berkeley, I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge by mistake. It cost me $5 and about thirty minutes extra road time, but it was worth it. I had been on the phone and missed an exit and the next thing I knew I was between two places, suspended over water by a gorgeous stretch of planning and hard labor.
I was reminded that a bridge between where I was and where I am headed exists. For those of you who have attended our adoptee retreats, you may know what I am talking about. I am on the bridge. It cost me something to get here, but I am moving forward to higher ground. It’s frightening, but it feels right.
It's also so beautiful. It takes my breath away.