Dressing Up the Unknown
Adoption has a lot of duality, a lot of pairs: adoptive children have two parents, in a way, and adoptive parents have two visions of their child’s origin. This duality breaks down to almost the micronarrative level (maybe I made up that word): for me as a grown adopted woman, and as the mother of an adopted child, I live with two totally different stories, both with holes in them. But those are instructive gaps—
The gaps in our knowledge extend to my own adoption in Ohio in 1964, when, the social agency narrator told us, a college girl had sex the first time with a handsome stranger and got pregnant. This was before any legal choices for women who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant—
What I Know:
I know her maiden name, which for years I forgot and sometimes misspell, and I know my name: I am the child of my parents, the comfortably adored baby daughter who was brought home in a perfect, tearfully selected outfit. I am wholly who I am: this adopted girl who went from an adoption service office on High Street to a home in the Ohio suburbs near a medium-sized mall.
In telling this story, I had a whole draft prepared that said it was all good, my adoption, and I was totally assimilated and “normal” (whatever that is; we only know the narratives around us: from friends, life, books, TV. I am still waiting for Alice from The Brady Bunch to appear and clean my house daily so it can be “normal” instead of full of a teacher’s ungraded papers and my 7-year-old’s artwork in baskets on the kitchen floor).
But the adoption experience is deeper than an outer shell—however nice and normal it may look. It isn’t worse or intrinsically horrible, it is full of: instructive gaps.
The Bad Part:
When I was in middle school (who ever likes that?) I felt different (who doesn’t?). When I was in high school and college, this difference came out more loudly. I was a liberal in Columbus Ohio in a middle to lower middle class (read, not liberal) school, I was a person craving education (my parents adore it too, and my birth Mom likely gave it a bigger priority than, oh, me, when I was born)—in a place where girls were not really valued as smart or prone to learning, I was desperate to learn and write and read more. I got depressed. I had a deep night of the soul that lasted on and off a few years, around my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college. Was it genetic? Was it adoption related? Was it (serious contender, we later realized) the medicine I took to clear my teen skin?
Adoption, like the soul in a Hafiz poem has many wells, some so deep they can’t fill with the average rainfall. Is this grist for the poetry mill? Yes. The double-sided narrative (my life/my other life; my completely loving, insistent, wow we wanted you to be our child family/my unknown causes for it, but abandoning family)—the strange way we adopted folk experience abandonment “on a cellular level” a psychologist once told me is impressive. I liked a rock song in the 70s that said, “We had voices before we had anything to say.”
Adopted people have something to say before we have voices (and recent research suggests babies do indeed experience loss, even before they have verbal consciousness. One book I read said that studies show adopted people have many of the same symptoms as orphans—even if they were adopted at birth. It isn’t a drama we make up, it’s a drama we are born into).
An Attempt at Summary:
So simply stated, I was adopted at birth or a few weeks after from an agency in Central Ohio by two educated, loving Presbyterian parents who brought me to church choir and picnics, read to me, taught me to love ice cream and honored my deep love of salt, which Dad had too anyway, and when they began planning to adopt a second child (I don’t remember knowing that, but I began talking about him to acquaintances) I sort of named him. When Tom was four or five, I announced at breakfast that we were adopted, to give him a gentle entry into his identity; he said, would you pass the apple juice?
Definitely an Heiress or a Delinquent:
Like many adoptees in the 70s and 80s, I was just an inch past the very forbidden secret times of invisible adopting—just past the time when it seemed like children of shame were being benevolently adopted by people with private fertility problems. My girlfriends at slumber parties wanted to talk about my possible origins (Howard Hughes was my Dad, they said; or, I was a princess.) One adult my family and I loved said once, in all innocence, when I was riding in a car with her at age 12, “But you are so normal. It’s a miracle—“ as if my three legged drug addicted Satanic side were fortunately weeded out by good raising or something.
It was not without drama, this adoption thing, although the story of one’s own origins—and the mystery of it, for most adoptees—has a powerful pull.
It is an instructive gap or blind spot we live with, developing screens (I don’t notice anything) and disguises (I look like my Mom—brown hair, different colored eyes but so what?) and fit into the assumptions of the world around us. Sometimes.
It prepares a person for deeper thinking, this examined/avoided relationship with our own early identities—and for poetry.
Adopting Our Daughter:
But the story in my family continues, and I just dropped it off at school. In 2001, my new husband and I decided to start our family, to have a child. We tried the “old fashioned way” and with my age, and our determination not to spend what little money we could borrow on a fertility treatment, we decided to adopt. (He had wanted to adopt from early on. I had a brief period of thinking I should meet someone biologically related to me, someone just like me, but, with my daughter now almost a clone but with Chinese features, I don’t see how that could have worked any better).
We adopted Z. from China in 2004 when she was 10 months’ old. The story of her adoption is chronicled in my 2009 poetry chapbook, The Long Birth, which includes a list poem that ticks off all the paperwork and funny things about the process (and which I’ve read with Eddy Vedder music played on mandolin). It also mentions the sorrow of not finding her sooner, in my belly (I tell her, we looked there, but no you! So we realized you were in China!). I had expected to grieve the not-child in my empty womb as we brought home Z., but no: she is entirely mine and entirely consuming, dimple by dimple, down to the first tantrum and the last cuddling bedtime story.
If a child heals the wound of adoption, she did mine.
Her own mysterious past is one of the weirdest and most hidden I know: readers who want to learn more should check out The Lost Daughters of China by Karin Evans to hear about the Chinese population control policy, and Chinese need for sons (they are old people’s retirement policy: a son and his wife take you in). Evans calls it a female Diaspora—the way Z. and so many of her friends in our Chinese public school in Portland reach their forever families with some deep strange history clinging to their cute heels.
Her birth parents had to abandon her without ceremony or official papers, so they are likely never to be found if she wanted to look for them later. Her orphanage was a good and I believe reliable one—we used a really well reputed adoption agency that steers widely clear of some of the horror stories one reads about illegal adoption practices in some places—and her life is now bi-lingual, and maybe not bi-cultural (she is an American Asian girl) but definitely spiced with two flavors: Chinese class is in the morning, at her first grade, and English is in the afternoon.
Lost Egg roll and a Child’s Own Story:
We flew to China with suitcases full of bottles, got there to find she was weaned (she chewed, and dropped, egg rolls), and fell to doting adoration in several Chinese hotels while we finalized her paperwork and got permission to fly her home. Her own adoption experience narrative will probably be funnier than mine: These people with big noses and a man with a beard came to get me, and it was my Mom and Dad, and they were so wonderful and crazy and weird, and they even sort of tried to teach me Chinese which was hilarious because theirs totally is terrible, but I was patient and loved them and thank God for Trader Joe’s rice. And then I got my Nana and Grandpa and cousins and my best friend is from China too and we have fun and I like hot chocolate.
New Family, in a New Town:
Portland, where we now live, has a very high percentage of adopted people and a very high number of bi-racial and inter-racial families and marriages, so we are wet (rains a lot), well fed (great groceries and restaurants), and busy. It also has a K-12 Public School program in Chinese Immersion where the kids study Chinese half a day and English the other half—building cultural knowledge and language skills for these great kids with their two world strengths.
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
How does Adoption influence my poetry? My mind—already on two planes as an adoptee/adoptive mom and an academic, whirs with answers. Most probably ridiculous and invented.
So I asked two local experts: Z. and my husband J. When asked how does adoption do in my poetry, she said, “Nothing.” Seven year olds are pretty succinct.
When I asked J., he said it gives me material to write about (I wrote about her adoption and my own sense of identity), a place to play with and explore my own questions and issues about abandonment and exile and connection and loss, and a theme I am part of and also examine to bring richness to my poetry and by connection my life. Okay, J., I made some of that up, but you were the pebble that started the snow tumbling down the mountain.
I don’t want to be theoretical or dismissive of this question, so will try a list:
1. Adoption allows my poetry to explore the personal while connecting it to deeper images and stories, and
2. Adoption has perhaps always been such a deep material in my identity and personality that, while not “identifying with it” strongly, it has drawn me to the juxtapositions and quilt-like structure of much contemporary poetry, and
3. Adoption confers a secret agent status to anyone, even if she doesn’t think about it. We are the insider/outsider both—the intimately accepted and loved family members and the mysterious stranger, because
4. In adoption, as in poetry, there is a locked box with stories and history and maybe riches (remember Howard Hughes and the Slumber Party stories?)—and
5. The locked box is both the past, our genetic history, and our hunger for completion and our love of ranging widely to find other mysteries and unsolved riddles.
6. I should add, I have loved Chinese poetry in translation for decades, which led to my interest in the country and culture and its many strange crises and events—and many great people. (I think it was Li Po, in the T’ang Dynasty, who wrote, we read poetry to make friends in distance places. Totally!). Chinese poetry and poets helped lead us to adopting our girl. So that poetry and its own ways of approaching loss, exile, joy, family, and the quiet stillness of water in the evening also influenced my work and my family.
Disclaimer: I tell my students is, never trust a poet to write a poetic theory. We are so used to beautiful hiding places in language that we are apt to build a hidden fort when we promised to build a clubhouse—(hey, see “The Figure a Poem Makes” by Robert Frost, or the intro to Narratives from America by Richard Ronan if you won’t believe this—and don’t even start me on T.S. Eliot—)
But the mystery, and our soul searching for poetic truths and a relation with the mystery of our identity, and even our own not finding the answers but weaving riddles as we look—are half the pleasure of poetic language, maybe especially from we adopted types.
And any weaving has both pattern and absence, a rich cloth and some instructive empty space.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
Bearing a Child an Ocean Away
Between the devil and the (deep blue)
Sea, this littlesweetness this toy in a mouth
(books about how to do this. Too much advice) &
the random tadpole of chance, with its peach tail,
& the way kindness and betrayal both smell like cake—
there were seeds to sow, and some
evenings here were mornings. There
were deadlines to meet, & a fertility doctor
said, “Make me proud,” so I sang softly (to my
it turns out empty womb, in a Target store.)
So technically our first shopping trip as mother/daughter
Occurred when you were not
there & hadn’t been born.
Time had plans for little
Shoppers. (and in erotic action
across the ocean, two mystery guests in a difficult situation
created their best accident): You,
growing in her ocean: finger, finger; bone, bone, heart;
a muscle ripe as a rainy Valentine.
You would become a baby in China. I would
bear you like an imaginary friend I couldn’t
stop thinking of, wearing out the paperback of our love.
Meanwhile, somewhere in China:
your lungs opened at first breath, & in Ohio,
your Grandmother ordered a quilt with your name on it. You little water,
evening river, fluting torrent, quiet spring:
(Your first lady disappears. You were left
without the usual necessities.)
Know this: you did not enter alone.
The Father of Nightingales
And what of the man, the new father?
Cigars on a rooftop. The shock of a new child
and a strange backward love: duty before
inexpressible joy. He is a fortress she climbs,
nights, shrieking with laughter. He is the artist
painting cats and horses for her to color. He is
the new version of a tired businessman, Chagall
bleary with his jacket, his briefcase, his easel.
Updated in the new century, a father climbs
the world searching for his child. Finds her
crowing for rice cereal in a high chair in China.
Holds her, sleepy nights, as she wails for him
as a commanding princess to her subjects. Baba.
They crouch before a clay figure, molding a woman
by hand. They lean over paper with crayons, drawing
a world in artful scribbles. A new father is a paintbrush,
a map drawn in flat good colors from the fifties:
The Primary man.
Both poems are from The Long Birth (Conflux Press, 2009)
ABOUT THE POET:
Jan VanStavern is a Professor of English at Chemeketa Community College, and has written about an adoptee's poetry ("The Adoption Poetics of Sandra McPherson," available on Google Books) and a chapbook of poems about adopting her daughter (The Long Birth, available at Amazon.com or through the author whom you can contact at firstname.lastname@example.org for a discount rate). She and her husband live in Portland, Oregon with their daughter.