Thoughts on My Particular Plateau

1.

Time blurs together when I’m at home in ways that surprise me. I remember reading years ago about Madeleine L’Engle’s distinctions between chronos and kairos time:

“That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time…The saint in contemplation…the artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside herself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos.”

I realized early on in parenting my oldest daughter that going back and forth between work and home was like shifting from chronos to kairos.

I can tell you distinctly what happened in the classes I took and the classes I taught—what I read, who I sat next to, what I learned, what I said—in those early years when my oldest was a baby.

But I cannot tell you many details about my daughter’s early life with certainty; it’s not that I wasn’t paying attention to her. In fact, significantly more of my attention was on her.

It’s just that the things that happened in my job and my work had corners and edges I could hold onto—deadlines and papers and presentations and grading.

My babies were soft flannel snuggles and slippery bubble baths, long walks and big eyes turned to track new sounds. Every day was lost in discovery of the essential people that they were.

Very little happened, not in the way I understand chronological time as moving from one event to the next.

We were the event.

There in the meeting of our souls in the room, as they ate and bathed and slept and played, we were the thing. Ourselves knowing each other.

The only movement was kairos time, as deep and enveloping as walking intentionally through strong waves into the deep parts of the sea.

2.

I knew when I decided to stay at home with my children this year that there would be costs to my career. It was not a decision I made lightly; no one leaves a career they’ve worked at for almost a decade easily. But after months of registering the level of stress on our kids, my husband and I both made decisions to plateau our careers for a year. His plateaus were different than my own, but we made our decisions together.

I use the term ‘plateau’ because I still remember a line from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”:

“Along the way, women should think about the climb to leadership not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips) when they turn down promotions to remain in a job that works for their family situation; when they leave high-powered jobs and spend a year or two at home on a reduced schedule; or when they step off a conventional professional track to take a consulting position or project-based work for a number of years. I think of these plateaus as ‘investment intervals.’” (I think, by the way, that men should think about their careers that way too–and I don’t love everything about that article, but I loved that paragraph.)

This year is my ‘investment interval,’ I have said. I love the optimistic feel of that phrase. I’m not giving up in my career, I’m investing in it. For an interval.

I will say with all honesty, it has taken me at least half of a year to detox from living so meticulously in chronos time that I almost forgot the benefits of moving more fully into kairos.

In chronos time, I was always late, always behind, always frantic.

The connectedness of our lives has made it worse; I had children who were mildly panicked all the time, picking up on my own panic, that maybe they should already have done several seasons of soccer or basketball or be reading at the right level or…whatever the level of achievement we could come up with for our kids, usually based on what I saw from someone else on Facebook or Instagram.

My kids needed to bathe in kairos time; they needed hours outside playing with dirt and sticks and dogs.

Last year, when I was picking them up in the front yard so we could make it to soccer and piano on time, we had very little time for kairos.

3.

I hate essays like this one. I hate it when mothers say things like ‘maybe kids need to be outside more’ or ‘I’m so glad I’ve plateaued my career.’ All I ever hear is judgment or guilt and privilege.

I don’t mean any of that, but I’m aware that it’s there.

Let me be as clear as possible: I recognize that being able to make career decisions can always sound didactic. I love to hate-read didactic bloggers: “These ten steps worked for me, and they can help you be your best you!” I find it fascinating how we let people with no expertise other than an ability to take selfies of their impeccable farm tables or adorable outfits tell us what to do.

We made very tough decisions because of the family we had—a daughter with attachment issues, two daughters struggling to keep their heads above water after very stressful years—and it’s been both good and hard for me, but I don’t expect what worked for me to work for anyone else.

I’ve tried to be as honest as I could with everyone who has asked me: this year has been good for my kids, good for our lives. We’re eating better, sleeping better, enjoying each other more than we ever have.

But if I were being honest, I’ve been climbing the walls for most of the last school year.

4.

I am used to—in fact, I really love—the productivity of chronos time. I am an achiever to my core. If there are gold stars to have, I want them. When I first read about Hermione Granger, I knew I’d found my literary soul mate.

Graduate school, working, teaching—for most of my life I’ve had little markers I could hit where gold stars would rain down.

And now they are gone. There are no gold stars with children. There is just the never-ending cycles of dirty to clean: dishes, laundry, floors, dog, children. Over and over, dirty to clean to dirty to clean. Day in and day out.

The lack of specificity—this is the thousandth dish I’ve washed this plate this month, or this is the 47th time I’ve treated jeans for grass stains this year—makes it all run together.

The repetition wears away on the edges of my time.

The truth is that I used chronos time to distract me from what needed to happen in kairos time.

5.

It took me awhile to come to this truth, but I needed to plateau my career for myself more than for my children. I needed to remember who I was beneath the gold-star-grasping, diaper-changing, laundry-folding machine that I had become.

The constant lists, the urgent sense that there was always something else that needed to be done, was a relief to me most days. I said it was not—I complained and complained about my busyness—but I knew, somewhere buried in my psyche, that I used the busyness of chronos time to distract me from the things I needed to face in the unforgiving sea of kairos time.

I’ve been learning to measure the productivity of my time not by what I’ve gotten done but the depths of relationship I see with the people around me. I can feel it in my girls, the strength of what we’re doing here. Nothing changes from day to day, and yet over time, everything is changing.

And the hard things about being at home with my children are also the hard things about being with myself.

Without the distractions of job and our barely controlled chaos, I have to remember who I am again.

A friend reminded me that these moments would come for everyone: the still place in the hospital room when you realize the life you had planned out might not work out that way; the quiet kitchen on the first morning after retirement; the long trip when the last child finally goes to college.

Taking time to stop and contemplate myself and my life is not easy for me. Maybe it is easier for other people, but I find it searingly painful.

I reach for distractions, but I’ve been trying to stop, to learn to sit with the discomfort, the holy boredom, of knowing myself completely.

I find that it is easier than it was—not yet comfortable, not yet effortless, but getting there.

It is like moving from eating Cheetos and Snickers bars to craving sun-warmed tomatoes from the vine.

Or returning to Tai Chi after years of competitive martial arts and finding value in holding the poses until my muscles ache and my arms flow fluidly into the next move in a rhythm I didn’t realize I have always known.

Slow. Methodical. Painful.

Essential.

Real.

 

 

 

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Turkey and Burmese Noodles

We ended up spending Thanksgiving with our refugee friends. It was a last minute decision—up until the week before, we thought we might leave town, but in the end, we were too tired. It was the off year for the side of the family that lives close by, so all of them were with their other families. The other side of the family lives hours away; we’re going to see them in just a few weeks for Christmas anyway and the idea of not packing and not getting in the car and not being exhausted was just too tempting. We missed them, but it was the right decision.

I painted a wall I’ve been meaning to get to for months, organized some closets, let the children play outside on the trampoline until they were too exhausted to move and they crashed in front of the TV for a holiday movie marathon. We caught up with good friends nearby, drove to Six Flags for the day, decorated our tree without fighting and put the laundry away before school started back up.

It was glorious.

When we realized we were going to stay in town, our refugee friends were the first people we called. I didn’t think about that till later, what that meant for our friendship and how things have changed for us over the almost ten years we’ve known each other, how we’ve moved from helper and helped to solid ground in our friendship. When I thought of the people in town I wanted at my house, I called those families first.

(Also, selfishly, I adore when they cook, so of course I asked if we could have a potluck—Burmese food pairs surprisingly well with turkey and mashed potatoes.)

It was a lovely feast together. The kids played like cousins, picking up where they left off from the last time everyone was over here. We set out a jigsaw puzzle and worked on it together, finding the edges first so we could fill in the middle later. Everyone loved the dressing and no one touched the rolls and the reactions to the pumpkin pie were decidedly mixed.

At the end, we went around the room and told three things we were thankful for. I added books, my middle daughter said robots, one of our friends said becoming a citizen of the United States, but we generally agreed on the most important things: family, good friends, good food, time together.

When they left, my youngest daughter, the one from China who looks enough like some of the Burmese kids that they could be biologically related, snuggled up in my lap and sighed.

One of our friends, a tender father to his beautiful and brilliant daughters who look like our daughter, had given her special attention and it was so sweet to watch. His face lights up with delight when she speaks. There is something indefinable that he gives her that my blue-eyed husband and I can never provide.

It would be so easy to look at the room and see our divisions—regional, ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic. It would also be easy to erase those differences and just lump us together because we share a common faith, a common friendship. But somewhere between those two choices—differentiating between us or erasing the lines between us—lies the truth. We are united like strings on a guitar: we parallel each other, resonate together, depend on each other, and yet remain wholly ourselves.

This friendship is teaching me so much about how to parent my children, how to be in relationship with my husband, how to love friends with different political viewpoints, how to interact with the world, what family actually means.

My little one leaned her head on my shoulder and we sank back into the couch. “Mama, I think I be from Burma.”

Later we will talk about what it means to be from China and how that is different from Burma, confirm our pride in her home country, discuss that sentiment in more age-appropriate ways as she grows. But she is five and still my baby and in that moment I heard what she meant: Mama, it’s good to be around people who are like me that I love.

And I responded to that feeling when I say, “I’m so glad, baby. I feel full. Do you?”

“Me too. I so full.” She rubbed her glorious belly and we savored that feeling of fullness for a brief moment before she ran off again to play.

 

 

 

Snippets of Resistance

(1)

The words are lead in my mouth. My thoughts are nimble, but by the time the words form, they are too clunky, too heavy to break through the firehose of noise.

Everything is noise. Everywhere is noise.

The noise slams into me every morning, washing over me. It is too hard to listen and too hard not to listen.

I struggle to keep myself from dissolving, my shoulders hunched against the onslaught.

I can see the tension in my friends whose hopes rode so high, whose work has felt so hard for so long–on one side, the resolution to not give in to despair, to hold on to what hope remains. On the other side, the temptation to dissolve, to disconnect, to crumple against the inevitable tide.

We stand together now like we did then. Then we were defiant, triumphant.

Now, we clump together like fire ants in a flood.

(2)

We sit around a table at a sandwich shop and within minutes, we are deep into history. Four Americans, two of Syrian descent, leaning in and listening to one another. For almost an hour, we ask questions about Syrian history from the man who has put his life on hold to connect his fellow Syrians with one another here in this strange place.

Things have changed in the years since I first welcomed refugees into this country and yet some things are so familiar, it’s like no time has passed.

There is less financial support. The enormous cultural support we once enjoyed is gone as if someone turned off a tap. Years ago, we struggled to tone down the idealization people had–“Those poor families! Those poor children! How can we help?”

Always, the do-gooders have been here, meeting each other in these spaces, but in the past we were expansive, exuberant, delighted to meet each other.

Now, the refugees who came to find peace are finding more suspicion, more fear. It triggers their deep warning bells.

Their fears set off our fears and we are cautious.

I feel battle-weary.

But around this table, we move quickly into a friendship that feels deeper, firmer, than the easy friendships of the past.

We are older, too, Caren and I, more aware of our limitations. She has promised to hold me back, as she always has, from doing or saying or committing too much.

But when we leave, we are invigorated.

The conversation was good.

Before we climb into our cars, I grin at her, the big toothy grin I use when I’m suddenly, ridiculously giddy. She knows me and she smirks.

Her smirk means she agrees: it feels good to be back.

(3)

American popular culture is full of resistance fighters and there is nothing we love more than to see them return, aged but determined.

Han Solo, entering the Millenium Falcon again.

Neo with his black coat flying.

Wolverine with gray hair and deep-set eyes.

I admit that the metaphor that keeps coming back to me is of an aged resistance fighter who wipes the dust off of her bomber jacket and cracks her knuckles before slipping into a cockpit where the seat still curves against her body and her hands know what to do before her mind catches up.

But in the last nine years, I have known actual resistance fighters from real countries where joining the resistance movement meant life or death.

I have seen the toll wars took on them.

I have listened to them talk about their children who died or who fled or who made it to other continents where they are safe but so far away that they might as well be ghosts from another life.

I have held a child so racked by PTSD-induced nightmares that she cannot stop her body from shaking and shared notes with mothers whose experiences with PTSD are the closest thing I have to understanding my daughter.

I have seen what war does to bodies, the stress and disease and loss it causes when governments or juntas or terrorist groups decide that one entire group of people no longer deserve to live. It began with assuming one group of people were a danger or a threat.

I have looked into eyes that cannot and will not brighten again, at spirits that died even though the bodies live on and on and on.

My metaphor turns to ash. I see it for the fantasy that it was: a rich girl in a costume with dreams of glory.

There is no resistance here, at least not yet. If (hopefully not when) actual resistance is needed, there will be no Hollywood sheen to it.

One moment in the presence of my refugee friends as they describe the fear that stalks them burns away my delusions.

I am heavy with a weariness that is not mine, that is older than time.

There is nothing I can do, nothing I can say.

Dank, stench-filled darkness settles in.

The Revolution (Reprise)

(1)

With all of the arrogance of the young, our country seems to forget how truly young we are. We have only been at this republic business for 240 years or so.

Egypt or Greece could sneeze and it would be longer than the history of our entire country.

Less than 200 years ago, black bodies were property in this country.

Less than 200 years ago, civil war ripped through our country.

Less than 100 years ago, women could not vote in this country.

72 years ago, FDR issued an order to contain Japanese bodies in this country.

56 years ago, Ruby Bridges walked into a segregated school and the country exploded around her.

0435586642_15075624_8col
Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” features little Ruby Bridges (1964).

Ms. Bridges is now 62. She is younger than my parents.

We were a country founded on social and cultural fault lines that are still roiling. Not enough time has passed in our history—these things just happened. This is not ancient history. Children of slaves, women born at a time before they could vote, people who remember being children in Japanese Internment camps, the children who desegrated schools and the children whose schools were desegrated—all voted in this election.

We are a country that was born out of revolution. We wave flags and go to parades and wear t-shirts from Old Navy to our neighborhood barbecues every July 4th and forget that Independence Day means we come from revolution.

I fear that revolution is back. In many ways, perhaps, we are so young that it never went away.

I’m not saying we are going to war. But there is no question: We still feel the aftermaths of the wars that have pockmarked our history in the turmoil of our political landscape.

The smoke has not cleared enough yet for us to know the depths of the damage of this latest political turn.

All we know right now, 48 hours into the election of President Donald Trump (I can’t believe I just typed those words) is this: This is a massive explosion.

(2)

In many ways, this fight came to me. I live at the intersection of several worlds. I do not think this is strange. I thought, in fact, until just recently that this is the way most people live their lives.

This is apparently increasingly untrue.

I know because more white people that I can count have come up to me recently and asked me, earnestly: How can I get to know more people of color? I usually blink at them and turn my head mildly like a bird examining a bug. I literally have no idea; why don’t more white people know people of color? Do they not look at their lives and notice that everyone around them is white? Aren’t they bored of hearing the same ideas or the same political opinions or the same religious views repeated ad nauseum back to them? I would be.

Here are the intersections of my life. I realize this could sound conceited or obnoxious or didactic; I don’t mean it that way. I’m just pointing out—matter-of-factly, like my grandfather used to point to areas of his garden (My tomatoes are tall this year; can’t wait to see how that okra turns out!)—what the terrain is like around me every day.

  • I’m a gringa who lived in Brazil and Chile. I speak Portuguese and Spanish. I studied Latin American literature in my graduate school program. I married a man whose first language is Portuguese; he is brasileiro at heart. When the time came to put daughters in school, we picked a dual language program for our blonde girls.
  • The girls’ school is led by the fiercest team of women and men it has been my pleasure to know. They walk into hard places every day with resolve and determination. Most of them are people of color teaching students of color. These are my daughters’ best heart friends. These are the children my girls are panicked will be bullied or stuck behind some mythical, ridiculous wall, my little girls who are afraid because their friends’ parents are so afraid.
  • I have known refugees for almost a decade now. My friend Caren and I started a non-profit working with Burmese artisans, but I have refugees from everywhere from Burundi to Iraq on my speed dial. I have watched their children grow up with my girls. Some are Christian. Some are Muslim. Some are Hindi. Some of them are atheists. We love them all.
  • My third daughter is from China. This year in preschool, someone called her ‘trash.’ Someone called MY DAUGHTER trash.
  • I grew up a fairly liberal Christian in a fairly conservative city. I was never evangelical, but my best friends were. I go to church most Sundays still. I have relatives and friends who can never imagine voting anything other than a straight Republican ticket. We might disagree on some issues, but I know them to be deeply moral and good people.
  • I have been in liberal academia for over a decade. I studied Queer Studies and issues of representation; some of my dearest friends identify as LGBTQ and some of my dearest friends are Latino/a and many of them are deeply, constantly aware of how their bodies are viewed as political terrain. That has affected me deeply. In terms of my research, I can give you at least a century’s worth of examples of hate speech or problematic discourse that has led to where we are today. We talked about those things in the Rhetoric, Writing, and English classes I have taught for years and years. In terms of my life, I have too many stories to name of egregious pain caused by Christians and right-wing conservatives. I have relatives and friends who can never imagine voting anything other than a straight Democratic ticket. We might disagree on some issues, but I know them to be deeply moral and good people.

This fight has been brewing for a long time, but in the last few months, I’ve had this surreal awareness that this fight is coming to my little intersection of the world.

I cannot tell you how much I want to stick my head in the sand and let it pass.

But words are my weapons. When the fight comes, I will do what every person does in revolution—I will defend what is mine.

I will keep telling the truth that I know.

(3)

I played Hamilton on repeat on Tuesday because I thought it was appropriate for a day that would see uprising. I watched pantsuit flashmobs and cried at the beauty of the diverse bodies dancing in celebration of a new time that we all thought was coming.

And then that change spectacularly did not come.

I’m going to let the pundits and the historians decide why that is, what happened, whose fault it is, what we should have could have would have if only.

As for me, I’m not throwing away my shot. I’m starting with my refugee friends. But there will be more. There has to be.

I don’t want to have to explain to my white Christian friends why my refugee friends and friends of color heard their votes for Trump as an exclamation point at the end of a long sentence declaring them to be less, to be unwelcome, declaring their bodies to be (once again) political territory, declaring they are keeping America from being great, that they are part of the swamp that needs to be drained.

(I know how Trump means that phrase. I also know how it sounds.)

I know my white friends who voted for Trump didn’t mean that (most of them—I hope not), but the message was sent anyway.

Loud and clear.

It’s not that one of two unpopular people won the presidency. It’s the way he said the things he said and the fact that he was rewarded for it—the shocking nature of this gut-wrenching pain being ignored or not understood—that has us reeling.

I don’t know what this will look like yet. But I know the only way I can live under a Trump presidency is by embracing the subversive tactics of my foremothers, who fought for decades against impossible odds so I could vote. It’s by telling stories, like Zora Neale Hurston, or by trickster strategies, like Zitkala-Sa, or by biding my time, like Elizabeth Bishop, or by ringing out in plaintive terms, like Maya Angelou.

I’m not alone. We are strategic. We are united. We are ready. We will not give up. We will be there, speaking out, listening, standing with, marching for, resisting and resisting and resisting.

We are not just Democrats. There are Republicans out there who are on board with us. We know ourselves by the measure of our language, by the way we listen, by our desire to do better and to do more.

This fight has just begun, or this fight has continued throughout time and we are joining the people who came before us.

As the character Hamilton sings, “The plan is to fan this spark into a flame.”

Hope is not lost. We are not giving up.

Viva la revolúcion.

 

 

My Daughter Is Not an Orphan

The first time was at the birthday party of one of my nieces. Friends of our in-laws, the kind of people we see occasionally at birthday parties, were sitting on the grass. This mom and I have always liked visiting, so I sat down with my daughter next to her. They are interested in adopting; we began an earnest conversation about adoption agencies, ethical issues, and the preparation they need to do bring a new child into their family.

Her son ran up, sweaty and sandy from playing on the playground, for a sip from his juice box.

“Do you remember our friends?” She reminded him of my daughter’s name and how his little friend was our cousin. He nodded politely, mouth full of apple juice.

I leaned over my daughter. “Say hi!” My daughter waved shyly.

“Would you like to bring an orphan into our family some day?”

The mom’s voice was sweet, delighted.

I felt sucker punched. I wasn’t sure what to say; in fact, I said nothing at all. A minute later, I gathered my daughter up on some pretext and walked to the other side of the party quickly.

I whispered against her hair as I held her, “You are not an orphan. You have two mothers who loved you. I am your mother. I will never leave you.”

Right now, my daughter doesn’t know what an orphan is. As she grows into the knowledge about her past, someday that term might sting.

I was surprised by how hurt I was.

***

That was the first time someone called my kid an ‘orphan.’ Since then, I have repeated a variation on that conversation at my older daughter’s soccer practice, in the dance class waiting room, in the foyer at church, at preschool. I’ve developed a better response: “Thank you! Actually, she is my daughter!” which feels like a non-sequitur to the person calling her an orphan. Those people mean she is an orphan and my daughter; I mean that, because she is my daughter, she cannot be an orphan.

I feel like the term ‘orphan’ is becoming more common than it used to be; my friends who are adoption caseworkers confirm that they’ve seen it more and more in their conversations about adoption in the last few years. I think it has to do with the fact that the evangelical church has become increasingly interested in adoption in the last decade. My family is not evangelical, but we move in circles that are. That term has infiltrated our world.

For a few years, on some playgrounds near our house in Austin, it was pretty easy to spot a t-shirt that said “147 Million Orphans,” usually worn by a woman in a long skirt with a paper bead necklaces. (There were matching kid t-shirts: “147 Million Orphans…Minus One,” to be worn by the adopted child.) That figure of 147 million orphans in the world (as far as I can tell, a misreading of a UNICEF report) was intended to refer to children who have one or both parents who are unable to provide for them. By that definition, any child of a single mother or being raised by grandparents is an ‘orphan.’ Though it seems to have faded in the last few years, the evangelical church used that number as a rallying cry to encourage families to adopt.

I once heard one man say we need to “James 1:27” those orphans (a reference to the Bible verse where God says true religion is to care for orphans and widows–also, a very weird verb).

Those t-shirts always bothered me, but it’s only recently I’ve been able to put into words why that term hurts me.

***

The details about whether or not our daughter was ever an orphan—whether both of her parents died—is not something we will share. The lack of relinquishment laws in China (meaning it’s legal to decide not to parent a child) creates a heart-wrenching situation: the only legal option for a parent who is no longer able to care for a child is to abandon her.

That’s why it’s almost impossible to trace Chinese birth parents like many people have done for other children adopted internationally or domestically; there’s no legal registry of parents who relinquished their children in China.

We guard what information we do have about our daughter’s past. She was very young when she left her first parents’ care (and they are her parents, like we are her parents—there’s room for all of us in this family).

But please don’t think for one second that, because she was too young to remember, the loss of those first parents is something that can be erased or fixed by our love for her.

The absence of the woman whose shushing noises limned my daughter’s body and defined her existence for nine months, of the man who gave her half her features, is the loss of her life.

It is primal.

It is all-consuming.

It will never go away.

To reference that staggering grief casually by dropping the word ‘orphan’ into the conversation is too much.

That grief is raw for us. My daughter and I treat it reverently. It is sacred space we tiptoe through daily. We talk about it, but only when we are safe together, when we can pull it out and look at the jagged edges.

We are aware of that grief at all times in our relationship.

We don’t need any more reminders.

***

The myth of the plucky orphan, whether Oliver Twist, the Little Orphan Annie, or Harry Potter, is one of the most common character types in children’s literature. (Seriously, most of your favorite children’s books feature an orphan or two.) I understand the romanticism of that term.

I realize that there’s a certain poetry in calling someone an ‘orphan.’ It connotes charming amounts of dirt, like an urchin begging coins from Ebenezer Scrooge, or a degree of spunkiness, like Anne of Green Gables.

And let me be the first to tell you, my daughter is plucky, spunky, and often dirty.

But the loss of my daughter’s first family is a gaping hole, not a romantic past.

To call her an ‘orphan’ idealizes the catastrophic choice her parents were forced to make. Every day parents all over the world are faced with the traumatic options our daughter’s first parents had, whether because of poverty or lack of health care or other cultural factors that are larger than them and that keep them from being able to raise their child. I don’t want to erase the systemic injustice in our daughter’s past with a term that, intentionally or not, casts us as adoptive parents as ‘saviors’ of a plucky ‘orphan.’

And to call her an ‘orphan’ makes her different and others her in ways I don’t like.

Our daughter will always be the Chinese daughter of white parents, which is hard enough. For now, she’s doing just fine—we stand in front of the mirror most mornings while she shouts “I am strong! I am smart! I am Chinese! I am beautiful!” because she saw a video of a girl shouting at the mirror one time and loved it.

But adoption is a long grafting process. We have complicated enough territory to walk together as a family without adding the extra layer of labeling her a term that comes from the intimate, vulnerable absence of her first family.

And the truth is, my daughter is simply not an orphan. I’m her mother. Her first mother is her mother. She has two fathers. She has three years’ worth of ayis who mothered her to the best of their ability.

She went from love to love to love. She was their daughter and now she is ours.

Our shared daughter is not an orphan.

 

 

The Dirty 30s

We call it the Dirty 30s because we’ve spent more time changing dirty diapers than we have changing the world.

In my 20s, I was pretty sure the world would already be changed by me by now (or at least close).

In my 30s, I’m too tired to change the world. I can’t even change my water filter; in my 30s, I think about things like changing my water filter.

It’s my friend Ann’s term. I asked her if I could borrow it. She uses it all the time. We could say the Tired Thirties, or the Growing Years. The Dirty 30s sounds kind of gross, but there it is–maybe these are rather gross years. Mucky. Muddy. When the shininess of our 20s wears off and we’re left with the hard work of actually doing our jobs and building our lives. It helps, I think, if we just acknowledge the differences.

In my 20s, I was tired, sure. I spent entire Saturdays lounging on the couch, remote in hand, exhausted from my 8-5 job, binge-watching What Not to Wear and HGTV shows. I had to get up! every morning! and work! It was awful. I’m not sure how I made it through those years. My husband and I could barely feed ourselves on Saturdays. We sat in our pajamas for the entire day, blinking at each other occasionally, before snuggling back into our nests of exhaustion.

In my 30s, my husband and I get ourselves, our three children, and our dog up and ready every morning, even on weekends. Actually, the dog doesn’t get ready, she just moves right underneath my feet so she trips me up as I’m scuttling across the house trying to find a hair band, a book for reading time, or someone’s other shoe (Why are the shoes always in different places? How do you lose one but not both shoes?). Our lives are a complicated juggling act of making sure snacks, piano books, and soccer cleats are packed in my locker/minivan so everyone has what they need when they need it. I’ve found that it’s easiest to just not clean anything out of the car, actually. If it’s all there on the floor, you can grab it when you need it. And get a snack of slightly stale goldfish. No one is judging. No one has time to judge.

My car floor is another reason to call it the Dirty 30s.

In my 20s, I had a plan for my life. We are driven nerds, so we actually had a chart. It was color-coded. It was beautiful. My color was teal because it’s my favorite. According to our chart, my husband would go to graduate school first, I would go to graduate school next while he got a job, along the way we would add in some children and then, having set up college and retirement accounts, we would pack everyone up to Go Do Something Big.

In my 30s, that chart has become a running joke. We will say, “where are we on the chart?” and laugh hysterically. On the surface, perhaps, some things did go according to the plans we set, but the world just looks different from up here.

I’m so far off the charts at this point I couldn’t find that chart with a compass and a really good trail guide.

In my 30s, things are more complicated than they seemed in my 20s.

In my 20s, I knew things. I knew things because I listened to experts. I read books. I informed the world around me of my clear views.

I knew about parenting, for example. Consequences and choices were key. In my 30s, I am astounded at how much less I know every year about how to parent these children. Things keep changing. The kids keep turning corners I never anticipated or issues come up that I could never have foreseen. The books don’t cover half the things we’ve gone through. I choose to think that’s because we are exceptional.

In my 20s, I figured out where I was supposed to be and what my life was supposed to look like and I pursued that—other people’s ideas for my life—with determination.

In my 30s, I’ve learned it’s less about having answers and more about having a few good moves: I listen more, I’m easier with myself, I’m calmer about the slow pace of change for myself and others. In my 20s I was impatient and life has (mostly) knocked that impatience out of me. Things will change or they won’t, but my raging or pushing or angstily worrying will move exactly nothing.

In my 30s, I’ve learned I have to trust my own sense of what I need to do, whether for my career or for relationships. Maybe this is easier for other people; it was not easy for me. I’ve had to learn—I’ve worked hard to learn—that I’m the world’s leading expert on myself and on my family, thank you very much.

In my 30s, I have grown into love with my husband in ways I could not have imagined in my 20s. We are both, let’s be honest, a little squidgier around the edges than we used to be (In my 20s, I exercised. I went to the gym. I knew where the gym was. In my 30s, I talk a lot about exercise.)

In my 30s, the hard edges we hit every time my husband and I had a fight have worn down. That’s a good thing. I have learned when to let him be and when to let him speak and how to tell him what I need (that’s not cheating like I once thought it was—how was he supposed to read my mind in our 20s?). I have learned that a good fight can be like a summer thunderstorm—it clears the air and everything is brighter, cleaner, more electric. I’ve also learned that there are some things that are so tender, neither of us should ever try to fix them in anger. Some things take decades to change for either of us. Some things are permanent fixtures that make us us. I’ve learned to transform myself; I see watched how my husband transforms himself for me.

In our 30s, his walls have my windows. The structure of our love is exquisite.

In my 30s, I’ve fallen hard for my kids. I am not really a little kid person. I had children just before I turned 30, so my 30s were for me a time of discovering how much I love my own kids. I never knew that newborns make ridiculous jazz hands when you blow on the inside of their elbows. I have loved the existential rabbit holes four-year-olds take you down. I have loved seeing the grit my children have when their world is on the edge of exploding, explosions I thought in my 20s I could help them avoid.

In my 30s, I’m learning my job is to help them navigate the hard places of the world; none of us can avoid the sad stuff.

Not everything in my 30s is better—I find that I have places in my mind that I don’t like. My views are hardening, calcifying in ways I didn’t expect. In my 20s, I was porous, open, fluid. I flung myself into adventure; I embraced ideologies and discarded them just as easily. I moved at such a rapid pace, I can no longer remember all the things I once thought were true. Now I can feel those ideas solidifying like coral—complex but brittle. I want to remain supple, I want to bend with new ideas, I want to learn from my children.

In my 30s, I want to keep the foolishness of my 20s. Maybe it will be less naïve, but if I allow the cynicism of my 30s to overcome the exuberance of my 20s, then I will have lost something essential for me.

The people I admire in their 70s are the ones who managed to remain just foolish, just bendable enough to stay intensely in love with the world around them.

In my late 30s, looking over the edge into my 40s, I find that I like myself more than I ever thought possible. There are so many things I could change, things in my 20s I thought I might already have fixed, but in my 30s, I’ve accepted who I am. I am this and no more; honestly, I’m a bit of an acquired taste. I’m more like blue cheese than cheddar; that’s good. I like blue cheese better.

At the end of my Dirty 30s, I’m navigating the mucky middle years of my life; I didn’t end up who or where I planned to be.

I had no idea I could love this mess this much.

Texas Has Pulled Out of the Refugee Resettlement Program: What that Means & What You Can Do

Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced on Friday that Texas will be pulling out of the Refugee Resettlement Program.

This announcement does not mean refugees will not be resettled in Texas. Far from it. Refugee agencies and the refugee support community are preparing for the fact that more refugees will come to Texas; there is a chance that the federal government, in a desire to let the Texas government know that they cannot pull such political stunts, will even resettle more refugees in coming months than they have in years past.

Refugees are still coming to Texas.

 

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Refugee Services of Texas features a newly resettled family on their website (image source).

But unfortunately refugees are, once again, pawns in the hands of government brawls. There will be no civil war in this situation, like there were in the countries they fled, but this decision is baffling at best and horrifying at worst for those of us who work with, know, and love refugees in Texas.

With refugees still coming, what Governor Abbott has done is hike up the rhetoric to play on the fears that are already rampant in our state. The state of Texas is officially going on record as saying they don’t want refugees and they don’t support them.

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MRC’s community gardens are cared for by extended families to feed their community (image source).

 

The people who pay the price will be the resilient, creative, trauma-affected, outstandingly brave refugees who fled violence, persecution, and death to save themselves and their families.

The people who are not going anywhere are the the overworked, underpaid, brilliant, subversive, and valiant case workers, educators, volunteers, and advocates whose job just got a lot more complicated.

These people are some of my dearest friends, refugees and advocates alike.

Let me tell you now, they are fierce. They are fierce like Texans have always been fierce. Whether Governor Abbott acknowledges them are not, these refugees become Texans. There are thousands of Texans who were once refugees. And Texans will be the first to tell you: we are loving, hospitable, kind, and we sure as heck do not back down from what we know is right.

We will not–WE WILL NOT–stop fighting with everything we have on behalf of refugees in Texas.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Educate yourself and the people around you. Know the terms.
    • Immigrants are people who come to our country from another country; in Texas and other border states, we are constantly aware of the undocumented immigrants in our state. I have been an immigrant in several different countries.
    • Asylum-seekers are immigrants, some of whom cross our Texas border (usually from Cuba or Central America), but most of whom sought asylum in other countries (those are the waves of people you see in Europe–part of our knee-jerk reaction is a response to the asylum-seekers in Europe. We have been influenced by Brexit and by other xenophobic, anti-asylum-seeker rhetoric, which has nothing to do with the refugees coming to Texas.)
    • Refugees are immigrants who were once asylum-seekers. In order to be given the official title “refugee,” they go through an extensive vetting system. When I say extensive, I mean VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY thorough. It takes years to be granted refugee status. I don’t care what you’ve heard on the news; what is driving most of us so bananas is that it would be much easier for a terrorist to come over here as a French citizen than as a refugee. Why would terrorists want to spend years having the United Nations High Commission for Refugees go through every piece of their life? They would not. My academic and professional term to describe this whole kerfuffle in Texas is simple: this is really dumb.
  • Do the math: Of the 65+ million refugees in the world, less than 1% are eligible for resettlement. That means that the people who are coming to Texas are truly the people who need to be resettled. They have proven to the very thorough UNHCR people that if they were to go back to their countries, they will be persecuted or will die based on one of five different things: their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. These are truly the people in need of a new home, new lives, new spaces with friendly people to let them be and let them build.
  • Tell your friends. Rally in support of refugees. At this point, the Texas government has done what the Texas government will do. I’ve been in the meetings where refugees agencies have thrown their hands up and brainstormed and teared up trying to figure out how to get the Texas governor and legislature to really understand who in the world we are talking about–not terrorists, but the victims of terrorism. But that time is done. Now we need to rally behind Refugees Services of Texas and Caritas of Austin and iAct and Multicultural Refugee Coalition of Texas and other groups throughout the state whose work just got way more complicated.
  • When you tell your friends, here’s what you say: 
    • Refugees are the victims of, not the perpetrators of violence. Always. They are the victims and we are blaming them for the violence in their countries.
    • Refugees flee because they have no other choice. They are not coming here to take away jobs or to become terrorists (again, French citizens, y’all–why refugees?). Most refugees I know wish more than anything else they could have stayed in their home countries; they often become US citizens and love their adopted homeland, but they’re coming because they literally have no. other. choice.
    • If I were in their shoes, I would flee too. Anyone would. I love my babies. I would save them from anything. That’s what refugees have done. Their choice is simple: life or death. They choose life and then get blamed for it.
    • Refugees have been thoroughly vetted. No matter what the news says. The news wants us all fearful because when we’re fearful, we watch the news. I’m not going to let fear win anymore.
  • When you rally, here’s what you do:
    • Call RST and Caritas and see what they need. Do you have a church group or a group of friends looking to help? Or are you ready to do more than feel bad? Call them. They might need funds. They might need people to help a family furnish and move into an apartment. They might need friends or advocates. They might need people to drive refugees to the doctor or to appointments or help them fill out Medicaid. If they tell you they’re swamped with volunteers right now, call iAct and MRC. Tell them you’ll wait a few weeks and then call back. Tell the people at RST and Caritas and iAct and Caritas that they should be making millions of dollars taking care of the displaced people in the world and you support them. Maybe take them coffee or drop of Target gift cards or just tweet at them that they’re the heroes of your world. They are the heroes of mine.
    • Buy products from Open Arms, Noonday, and Newton Supply Company, companies who employ refugees. Also, get some great stuff. Win-win. (Here’s a fun podcast of one of my dear friends, a refugee who works at Noonday, and I talking with Jessica Honegger, Noonday’s founder, about what a good job means for one refugee family.)
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Refugees make products at MRC’s Open Arms, which was honored last week at the United Nation Leadership Summit on Refugees for their sustainable employment (image source).
  • Think about whether your company could employ refugees. I’m happy to make this stereotypical statement–refugees are the hardest working people I know. I have literally never met a refugee who wouldn’t do anything, and I mean anything, to support their families. If they have already fled certain death, becoming a painter or a plumber or a busboy at a restaurant is nothing. They want stability and a chance to breathe for a minute. There is no better thing you can do that help them have employment than allows them to have self-respect and enough money to put down roots. Again, call RST or Caritas and ask them if your company might be a good fit.
  • Be ready to have your life changed. Some of my closest friends are refugees. We aren’t helper and helped, we’re just dear friends. They are wickedly funny and warm and kind and so fun to be with. Don’t show up ready to feel good about yourself as a helper, show up ready to make a friend with someone who will teach you something about the world.
  • Want to get political? 
    • Call the Governor’s office: 512-463-1782
    • Send a written comment: https://gov.texas.gov/contact/
    • Get on Twitter: Write to @GregAbbott_
    • Sign the Pledge to Welcome Refugees in Texas: Tell Texas lawmakers you support refugees by signing here.

For 40+ years, Texas has led the way in hospitality for people who were persecuted and killed because they were different. As a lifelong Texan, I am heartsick.

Y’all. This is not the way we as Texans respond to injustice. We know how to do what’s right.

Pass on this information and help educate the people in your circle–Texans are not giving up.

WE WILL NOT ABANDON REFUGEES.