Rats in the Garden

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Boise, again.

It has been awhile since I personally checked in with our little blog. Baba ends up carrying the writer torch while I bore myself with thumb twiddling. But, since we have recently taken our annual pilgrimage to the Salt Lake graveyard where my father and step-mother are buried, I got a sudden burst of inspiration to write something sad.

“Now” for me seems to be one of those proverbial pivotal moments we all have in our lives where we suddenly notice things we didn’t see before even though they were right in front of our faces. I think the end of summer is always a time of self-reflection for people with school-aged children because life changes so drastically when they all go back to school.  Is it because we over identify with our kids as we see them go back to whatever grade they are going to, remembering this or that time in our own lives, or is it that they are getting older and that means we are getting older and further removed from youthful bliss? I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s as if all of my unattended to stuff is right here staring me in the face since school started last week.

This year I should have been happy to see the summer end.  I had surgery, so Baba took family medical leave, and even though we helped family members make giant moves and Baba’s brother tried to die starting in Spring (spoiler alert: he’s still alive), we were all together all summer. We did have to miss our annual trip to Planet Bluegrass for the Folks Festival due to my annoying health things which was devastating since we all look so forward to it, but then we had a fabulous trip to my little brother’s wedding where Baba was the officiant and people said things like “your four kids are amazing” and “it’s great to see you after all these years.” There was some drama—indeed there always is with families, but overall it was a trip rich with love and people who love us.

Then we arrived home. And in addition to my unattended to stuff staring me in the face, we discovered a colony of rats had taken up residence in our fabulous and newly constructed keyhole gardens. At least it answered the question of why the tomatoes grew and thrived in one garden bed while the zucchini and broccoli in the other garden bed died, but it felt violating and destabilizing to see that these unwanted vermin had just moved in and made the fruit of our hard work their very own, spoiling it for all of the rest of us.  The morning after we got home, Baba thought it would be nice to walk around the yard and let the dogs romp and play while our kids slept, but instead of nice, it became the discovery of a beady-eyed interloper face-to-whisker and cries of why has this happened in our new and nice garden that we took every precaution to rodent proof? The rats have spoiled our feelings about the gardens in general and have soured the excitement of our plans for expanding them further.  They have brought hopelessness and a sense of failure to the air encircling our cups of morning coffee we hold while standing and scowling out the back window toward the gardens. And school has begun, so there really isn’t time to address the rat problem now.  We seem to only find the time to feel harmed by it.

And on the subject of school: We haven’t made a secret out of the fact that our oldest, Hallie, attended for most of her life since age 5 the sacred art school often referred to as a Steiner school. We’ve posted several pieces of writing on our dilemma surrounding what is best for her educationally and socially and about her academic struggles as a brain-injured adolescent; but this year, she chose and we allowed her move to the public school that our two younger sons attend. We are clear that there have been struggles with all of our children in their educational paths, but she’s had the most difficulty of them all. We have, Baba and I, tried to create a good, clear and clean path for our kids educationally and socially; but lately, I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about what that actually means.

What does it mean to raise our children with a good, clear, and clean path when parenting includes enumerable pitfalls? There are so many easy ways to fall behind, to not know, to know too much—where do we start and where do we end? How do we know our children have all the correct equipment—including the necessary weapons—to safely walk the paths of this unfair world? All of our kids come from unfair places. They all began in places where there was a lack of want or capability, and certainly a lack of resources to make any changes. Their first true and trusted connections were severed and so we strive to keep all of their other connections solid and secure.

And so our oldest started middle school in what is a too-familiar yet totally-different-than-it-was-when-I-was-there place. Middle school is a place young beings are trying to figure themselves out—trying on new styles and feeling what new and filthy words taste like on their tongues and lips.  They are also in some cases learning how to take power from others to feel more powerful.  I remember all that, but I think I got the need to establish who I was out pretty early, after which I did well by mostly ignoring the strange actions of the other kids my age. I am certainly not saying I was free of the drama, I am just saying that for whatever reason, I became savvy early. Our new middle schooler isn’t having that kind of experience, and I worry that it is as a direct result of us having created a too-perfect safe place for our kids. I worry that they don’t know the things they should in order to be safe in the world.  I worry that they don’t know when they should hold their cards close. I worry that on our constant quest for their safety and security, we’ve rendered them soft-skinned and too exposed.

And now what do we as parents do when more savvy and ill-intentioned kids haze and sexually harass one of our soft babies? The part of me that protects thinks a visit to the classroom and a well-placed threat is the only way to solve this problem, but the rational side of me knows that is never a way to approach a child. The educated and compassionate part of me knows that even a hormonally challenged, functionally incapable, predator-in-the-making has a story. And I know rationally that something is amiss if, in a highly ranked, fully parentally supported school in a gentrified neighborhood of a well-educated city, a pair of boys can act so predatorily and think they will get away with it. I am certain it is “but we have a dress code” and “boys will be boys,” and a gender specific way of approaching the world that has them believing that how they treated our girl is a reasonable way to gain trust, and perhaps even a girlfriend. It is likely this same foundational entitlement mentality that nurtured the “side-kick” male friend egging on the behavior of the initiator, and it is certainly the same system that, through learned helplessness,  informed a girl classmate who tried to make it stop initially that ultimately she was powerless to stand-up, and so did not when it came down to really helping our child. And it is my bias that makes me think it should not be here—not at this school.

I seem to have forgotten that we are still actually living in the real world.

I want all of my kids to be safe. I want them to understand the history of our country and that it has been built from the backs of others. I want them to know that even if that is where this country came from, that it is not where they have to take it. I want them to know that there are many other people in this country and in this world who will work to make themselves feel more and become more by creating inequity. I want them to know that some people actually look for those who are weak and try to take their power. I want them to know that they have power and not to give that power to others. I want my boys to understand that a penis can be a weapon. I want my girls to know that too. I want them to stand in their differences like a strength and I want them to know that their family will always be there for them. I want them to stand up for others and not to back down. I want them to know that their family stands behind them in support. I want them to know right from wrong.

I will be proud of any child who comes home with a black eye or bloody lip or suspension if that came from standing up for another child who couldn’t or didn’t know how. That kind of strength is not something we see often anymore, but when we do, it is like a bright and shining light in the fog.

I want my children to be the light. But I also want them to be safe and never have to know that there are rats in the garden.

~mimi

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Home at last

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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Elton_John_-_Goodbye_Yellow_Brick_RoadWhen are you gonna come down
When are you going to land
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man

You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn’t sign up with you
I’m not a present for your friends to open
This boy’s too young to be singing the blues  

Almost a year ago, we posted Go to a Good School.  And like the dilemma about which it was written, it is filthy with impossible choices, double entendres, “literal” metaphors and more hyperbole than our usual. Admittedly, the story is the kind of solid drama our family experiences on the daily, but a divergence from our norm came in the story’s resolution at the part where we decided to give “our baby” up for adoption.

“Our baby” in this case, refers to our two oldest children’s’ now toddling birth brother, and to say that our decision not to raise him was hard, is understated.  But it was the best choice for our family despite the crack it produced in the emotional glass house we had constructed when we learned Birth Mom was pregnant again.  Protecting ourselves from a process we’d barely survived two previous times was a necessary precaution, even though the third pregnancy was different in most ways.  The last two pregnancies she had been homeless in Seattle; but this time, she was a couple of days drive away from us, and Baby Daddy was a totally unknown-to-us variable. Birth Mom’s drug use and homelessness were also huge factors.  She had admitted to needle use of methamphetamines and other drugs from conception to a month before delivery, so we were understandably cautious regarding whether the pregnancy would ever make it to term, given the conditions the fetus faced.

And then there was the issue of how much contact I could manage with Birth Mom, and what it meant to invite her brand of crazy back into our lives after several glorious years of peace. Since I was the one she had formed a relationship with when her first child came into care with me 11 years ago, I knew that I would be the one who would talk with her, text with her, pay for motel rooms for her, advocate for her, wire money to her, seek services for her, counsel her, and generally be a parent to her. I knew the emotional toll and time costs would be high, and I knew our kids would be impacted; especially the oldest one.  Given all of that and so much more, the realization that our family did not have the resources to manage another child was not subtle and in fact was fairly obvious from the outset. Complicating the whole thing for me was my personal and our collective track record of never giving up on anyone.  Even once we had made the choice not to raise him ourselves, walking away from Birth Mom in her time of need was never an option.  And more importantly,  abandoning baby number three to fend for himself through foster care and inevitable adoption to strangers in a state where he’d be lost to his brother and sister forever was simply not going to happen. It was the one scenario that would have called our bluff not to take him.

Predictably, through all the advocating and fighting for his right to a family and to his siblings, the emotional glass house keeping that little baby boy at a safe distance from our hearts shattered. But we picked up the shards and we duct-taped them together and we pulled it over us to house our resolve to find him a family and bring him to Washington.

Birth Mom and Baby Daddy reappeared and restarted visits when the baby was around seven months old, so of course the social services clock for due process was also restarted. Birth Mom asked me repeatedly at that point to come and get him; promising to relinquish immediately upon my agreement to raise him in the same home with his siblings, not understanding due to her mental compromise that I couldn’t just drive to Nevada and pick him up.

But she had it all worked out in her mind, I would later learn, in a scenario she created in which she would keep him in Nevada as long as she could, and when the state was about to terminate her rights, she’d sign some papers and I would drive down and get him. She actually told Baby Daddy’s sister that she always knew I would eventually have him, but that she wanted him in foster care there as long as possible to be able to bond with him so he would never forget her. Her scenario to keep him in Nevada by refusing to sign relinquishment papers worked as planned, but the part where I come in and get him at the last minute did not.

I first told her about our friends here in Seattle area who wanted to adopt him when she was in the hospital post-cesarean delivery.  I told her they were amazing, and that we had known them since three of the four of us had been in the same doctoral program.  In fact, I had called them from California the very day Birth Mom called me when she was around eight months pregnant to say she was “keeping” this baby.  I had hung up from Birth Mom’s call and immediately called to see if they were still an option for placement because the only thing I knew for certain was that Birth Mom was not getting custody.  They said they were still in. If you read this blog regularly, you know what happened from that phone call day until the baby was five months old and in foster care in Nevada.

What happened from five months old until now included nine more months of back-and-forth with the birth parents, and a lot of calls, texts and sleepless nights. Nevada initially said “no way” to an interstate transfer involving the baby going to a non-relative. I called every social services office in Nevada once I had been informed that the placement committee had flatly refused to consider our friends as and adoptive option, but still I reached one dead-end after another until I called the State Ombudsman’s office. It was there that I learned about the process of the placement committee, and it was from that information that Hallie and I hatched a plan to have our children, the baby’s biological siblings, make a video including the proposed adoptive family in which Hallie would ask the placement committee to allow our friends to adopt her baby brother.  The baby’s social worker wasn’t sure if it would work, but enthusiastically agreed to show the video to the placement committee. The decision to allow our friends to adopt the baby was unanimous within hours of our video being shown.

Stalls and blocks continued to impede progress to actually get the ball rolling to initiate an interstate transfer even after the committee said yes, but I had sent a joint email to our friends and the baby’s social worker introducing them all, and I kept regular contact with the case worker and the baby’s paternal aunt until finally Nevada made contact with our friends. From there, the process to get an updated home study and prepare to complete the paperwork for an interstate compact for the placement of children (ICPC) was in the hands of our friends and their local Washington ICPC worker, and my role diminished to essentially being the squeaky wheel.

After fifteen months, baby number three arrived in Seattle a few days ago with his new family.  We haven’t met him yet, but I’m sure we will soon.

I’m also pretty sure I have postpartum depression.  I hope we made the right call to say no more kids. I don’t see any way we could have managed another child. I hope he never feels like he wasn’t good enough.  He went to a wonderful family who will love and cherish him. I hope someone tells him someday how hard I fought for him.  He needs to know that if it had come down to him being stuck in Nevada or us taking him, we would have taken him. That is how I know that it was meant to be that our friends are his new parents.

Ironically, one of the parents in the family who will be adopting our baby was the one and only person in my entire friend group who brought gifts and made a big deal out of my taking baby Hallie into foster care all those years ago when she was almost a year old.  It was the nicest thing anyone outside of my family did to welcome Hallie; and in fact, it was the only thing anyone outside of my family did when I embarked essentially alone on the parenthood journey with a fragile eleven-month-old brain injured foster child.  I have never forgotten the kindness. Multiple other encounters throughout the years have more than shown us that these are the people you want to adopt your baby. They are patient. They are genuine. They are solid.

I definitely don’t mean to imply that I could possibly know the pain and anguish of giving birth to a child and then, for whatever reason, having to give that child up for adoption, but I will humbly say that this has been as close to just such an experience as a non-biological parent could likely ever feel.   And now that it is all over, I am not sure what I’ll do with the feelings that I failed somehow – that I took the easy road.

I’ll work all that out in therapy, but for now, it is enough to know that what is really true for me is that this whole process had nothing to do with me or my road choices but rather was all about the baby finding his yellow brick road to The Emerald City.

So, goodbye, yellow brick road; you’re in good hands.

Saving Fish from Drowning

A pious man explained to his followers: “It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. “Don’t be scared,” I tell those fishes. “I am saving you from drowning.” Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes.” ~anonymous

I have a party trick:  I can tell you roughly 10 to 30 minutes into meeting you what it is you don’t want anyone to know; and in many cases, I’ll even see those things you’ve hidden from yourself. But don’t worry, unless you ask me my opinion with such conviction that I am convinced you really want the answer, I’ll never tell you. I officially learned my lesson about telling people in my social circle things they aren’t ready to hear a few years ago. And a good lesson it was, too, given that I am still today on one side of the fracture that formed when I opened my mouth and inflicted my opinion on someone who had historically asked for it. That particular day, they had not asked for it.

In my defense, I am human. That is pretty much the only defense I have on this one, but in fairness to me and my lapse in decorum that day, I don’t see human relating the same way most people do to start with.  I would say the difference is in part due to the fact that in my life I have been someone to whom random strangers tell their life stories in public places.  In the grocery store line, in the lobby waiting for my car to have an oil change, at the post office; people I’ve never met have always before and will still now approach me and tell me things about themselves—big things. Even before I was educated and licensed into a profession that openly invites personal disclosure, I was the person who knew and kept everyone’s secrets.

And since I also get paid to listen and offer an opinion regarding what it is that needs to be healed for people, I have become predictably desensitized to the pain and suffering of others. I no longer have to covertly pinch myself in order to conceal an appropriately horrified reaction when hearing the disclosure of another’s personal hell; which is good in many ways, but the flip side is that I also don’t always realize until it’s too late that what I said was too extreme and should have been tempered before serving.

There is also a positive side to desensitization in that I can hear without a shred of judgment the recounting of monumental mistakes people and organizations have made— mistakes that took lives and destroyed families. And I can listen while only observing and estimating where the proverbial train went off the metaphorical track rather than assigning blame or adjudicating the storyteller. I simply listen openly and reflectively, and then I strive to assemble and provide the necessary toolkit to return the train to the track. I have come to understand both in myself and in those I serve, however, that getting the train back on the track is actually the easy part.  The hard part is removing the gigantic, invisible fishhook.

I describe the giant fishhook concept to clients within the therapeutic setting by telling a story about my grandfather from when I was a child going fishing with him.  He loved to fish, and he loved to eat fish, and we frequently ate his catch of crappie and catfish during family dinners on Sundays, served with my grandmother’s hushpuppies and home cut french fries. We would fish all day; me sunburning my minnows as he called my preference for raring back and casting my line into the water over and over instead of setting it once and waiting for a bite; him patiently awaiting a bite followed by a perfectly-timed twitch to set the hook, then the reel-in would begin that ended with a landed fish to add to our catch bucket or stringer.  Those fishing days were quiet and reflective, and even my young child mind knew not to say too much and disturb the sanctity of my time with the man I believed to have hung the sun, the moon and all the stars.  Every fishing trip started with his old pickup truck pulling his old boat—gear stowed and ready to launch—a metal cooler with a side mounted opener full of ice and tiny bottles of Coca-Cola to which we would each add a little packet of Planters peanuts once uncapped, and sometimes there would be a Moon Pie in the glovebox for us to share on the ride home.  He’d drive down the center line of the old country roads we took, and when I would ask why, he would quietly mumble, “you have more room that way,” and move back to his side, leaving me to wonder if he was asleep at the wheel or simply too lost in his thoughts to remember that he was driving. We’d arrive at the launch site despite his distraction, where we’d put the boat in the water, park the truck and trailer, grab the cooler, and head out onto the lake for the day. He would use the quiet trolling motor to propel us to small, still, areas of the large Kentucky lake where downed trees and brushy bank edges were sure, according to Papa, to yield the most fish.  And he was usually right as to where the fish were biting.  We would troll and fish until the sun got high; always leaving with a nice catch that was relatively effortless to acquire—for him anyway.

But there were a few times over the course of those years we spent fishing together where Papa would do something outside the normal fishing trip routine, and those few outlier times were always following when he had hooked a giant fish—one that fought hard and pulled heartily to free itself before finally landing in the little aluminum boat with us. But the giant fighting fish never ended up on our stringer or in the bucket to go home with us. Instead, my papa would clasp a large, weathered mechanic’s hand over the dorsal fins of his flopping captive to prevent being poked while he lifted the whopping creature off the boat floor and removed the hook. Next, he would bring the fish close to his face to whisper something to it in a voice too low for me to hear and then toss it back into the water. I only asked him why the first time I was the witness to the ritual, and the answer has remained with me as a metaphor for many things in my life since.

“If you hook something that big,” he had said, “you need to let it go.”

He was likely referring to the higher levels of mercury in larger catfish in those lakes around home, but I knew nothing of mercury in fish back then.  Regardless of what he said versus what he actually meant, my papa provided my first introduction to a counseling concept I would later know as the Unforgiveness Hook.
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I use this tool and my grandfather’s fish story regularly to start conversations with clients when it is clear that it is the unforgiveness hook that is impeding forward movement. And then I follow words with double meanings, facial expressions, body language, tells of half-truths, and contradictions to know where to go from there.  It is the ability to see and interpret subtle messages that allows me to pull off my party trick with a magical nuance.

Though honed in adulthood through education and observation, if I abandon my scientific mind and live a bit on the fringe, I can honestly admit that the true source of my party trick is my great-grandmother.

Born in 1891, Little Granny, as we called her, was my 96-year-old maternal grandmother’s mom. I watched her die in her bed when I was five-years-old. I mostly remember the experience as one where I was frozen stiff against the wall, trying to push my entire body through it and out of the room, but I also vividly remember my grandmother’s cries, the gasps for air coming from the bed, and the moment when she left her body. She went past me with a force as strong as the force of my body against the wall and I fell to the floor.

Little Granny had become bed-ridden a few years earlier after she had fallen and broken her hip, and the day she left us, I had been playing in her room like I did every weekday while my grandmother fed her.  I don’t remember exactly what else happened; but I do  remember when she started to choke and when she left her body and flew past me.  It was like it happened in slow motion, even though she was speeding by me.  She sucked me into the energy of her movement through the air, and it felt as though I was in two time spaces at once. One was the real time and space we all live in every day, and the other must have been the time and space a person’s soul moves through when it leaves the body.  She went through me, or her energy did at least, and I saw her as a colored mass of moving light like a shooting star and the sparks off a campfire all together.  I am pretty sure that was the very the day I learned to see things that are just beyond the surface, but I also learned something about the Unforgiveness Hook that day.

As a bored five-year-old stuck at home with my grandmother and my bedridden great-grandmother the months before she died, I was menacing, bothersome, and downright annoying to her. I would dance around in her room, make funny faces, “fluff” her pillow just out of reach of her scoldings, and generally be, well… five. So, of course when she died that day in front of me, I convinced myself that I had caused it. And while it took me 30 plus years to stop believing I was the one to blame, I finally did. And I did so because I became a parent myself. And when my first child turned five, it all suddenly made perfect sense.  And just like that, I let myself off the unforgiveness hook I’d been dangling from for three decades.

I know from my professional work, my home life, and my social circles, that it usually doesn’t seem so easy to poof oneself down off the hook as it was for me that day I stopped blaming myself for being five. Also, I am fully cognizant that the reason I stopped blaming myself cold-turkey was a bit of the Christmas Carol story where I was gifted the benefit of seeing my past through watching how a five-year-old interacts with the world, thus normalizing the behavior I had long believed to be a personality flaw. I also realize that it is decidedly harder to poof someone else down off the hook if having them speared and wriggling relieves some of the pressure of taking all the blame alone; but if I consider what my party trick has taught me as an indicator of what it is that needs to be healed in most people, forgiveness is always a major player.

Much current research into the benefits of forgiveness exists, and everything from better physical health to a happier and more fulfilling life has been demonstrated in those who actively forgive as compared to those who hold resentments.  One of the first studies to consider how forgiveness improves physical health showed that when people even just thought about forgiving a specific person, improved functioning in cardiovascular and nervous system health could be measured as compared to less forgiving participants who displayed more incidences of significant illness.

Psychologically, when people reported in later studies that they had a tendency to forgive others, decreased depression, anxiety and anger levels were recorded. In three separate studies including a group whose family members had been murdered, for example, the people who were taught how to forgive became less angry, reported less hurt, and were more optimistic in general; with increased compassion and self-confidence, and lowered stress scores.

So it turns out, Papa was right: Keeping something big on a hook is bad for your health. While it might not be as easy as unhooking and tossing it back in the water, it’s possible to make a conscious decision to release feelings of resentment toward someone that has caused you harm. It doesn’t mean you have to say it’s all okay, or make up with the person who hurt you, it simply allows you to stop being eternally bound to that person while swinging them on a hook that takes energy for you to carry around.

So do yourself a favor in 2017, and forgive someone. Let that grudge you’ve kept tethered to you go free: I mean, really let it go free. Don’t just say you’ve forgiven because you don’t see the person or talk about the incident anymore but rather see if you can actually forgive. You don’t even have to tell the person you are forgiving them, because the benefit is solely for you.

And if you can’t or won’t forgive, at least stop pretending to be saving fish from drowning.

~baba

Blink

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She was 22 and I was not old enough to be her actual biological parent the day a local courthouse became a time machine. Adult adoption they called it, though I’m not sure why. The 22-year-old adoptee in this case wasn’t anywhere near proficient in the skills required to adult herself.

We had met five years earlier when she was 17, and I was the volunteer for a youth group of LGBT kids in a community center close to a military base. My first day as the group’s recreation volunteer, I remember watching with wonder as she dropped to one knee and pulled out a ring from her oversized cargo shorts pocket, proudly asking the very traditionally feminine 16-year-old girl sitting next to her to marry her. Same-sex marriage was not a thing at that time. It would not become a thing for some distance in the future, but this kid was clearly unencumbered by the triviality of legality. In fact, anything legal at that point in her life would have been considered less than favorable given what I came in time to understand about her general disregard for law and order. She had been a powerless child victim within a community of those supposed to support and defend, and yet this now almost grown child had gone unsupported and undefended through acts of violence so egregious that I cannot bring myself to speak them into words on this page.

She was crying on the steps of the place where the youth group was held the second time I saw her. She was crying because her military stepfather was going to prison that very day for one of the acts he perpetrated.  He was convicted of molesting her and her siblings while her very own mother turned a blind eye instead of protecting her children from her husband.

“Why don’t you come tomorrow to my job site,” I offered, hoping for a distraction.

I could not on that day see how my simple act of inviting a distressed kid to come and have a job could alter the course of my life, but it most certainly did. And when I extended the invitation to cross the boundary from youth group member to employee, I was blissfully ignorant to the difficulties surrogate parenting an adult child with severe emotional trauma would present.

“I could use some more help,” I assured. “I’ll give you a trial run, okay?” I patted her shoulder in a gesture that now seems more like sealing our fate than a friendly pat.

She indeed showed up the next day to begin working on my crew, and then showed up again the day after that, and the day after that, and then most every day we worked until several years later when I no longer owned the business, she was no longer living with the girl she had proposed to that first day we met, and instead we showed up together on the courthouse steps to enter the machine that would take her back in time to a world where she was my legal son.

Since this is not fully my story to tell, I can say nothing about it from the side of the grown child I adopted as an adult;  but I can speak from my side. And after what feels like a lifetime of lies and deception, it’s time to say what is true for me.

He never identified as a girl, and certainly could never have been mistaken for one; not even a tomboy. Those who knew he was biologically female and naturally used female pronouns to refer to him supremely confused those who didn’t know, but oddly, no one really ever made it an issue or a topic of conversation. And he never corrected people on his gender; no matter which pronoun kit they used.  I suppose the fact that he had passed effortlessly as a  boy his entire life added to the ease of walking into the courthouse in a not-too-tiny city, after having merely written an “M” rather than an “F” on one block on one form of the paperwork needed to adopt him at 22, and having no one question it. Not only were there no questions about his gender, there were no questions about my motives for wanting to adopt him. The questions we got, as I remember, were during a several minute conversation in the judge’s chambers from an elder man in black robes siting behind a desk. He asked my adoptee if he agreed to be adopted by me even though he was an adult already and he asked my adoptee if he knew that my adopting him meant his birth parents had no more legal rights to him.  There was an exaggerated pause at that juncture before he asked my adoptee if he understood what a great responsibility it was to be a part of a family. Surely the judge must have know that if the adoptee had any experience with a responsible family, we most certainly wouldn’t be in his office on that day creating a new family.  The kid kept his solemn face and passive posture, while answering “yes, sir,” to every question asked of him, and said nothing else.

The judge then turned to me, looking me over with more confusion on his face than suspicion, and asked me the next set of questions:

“Do you understand what you’re doing?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Do you realize that you cannot undo this in the future if you change your mind?” he asked.

I nodded again.

“Do you realize that with this proceeding, this person becomes a legal heir in the same way any other natural or underage adopted child would?” he asked.

I was the one who paused this  time as I tried to imagine my then very young self as someone’s heir, but, “okay,” I thought, “it’s a reasonable question,” I thought, though I actually had not considered the legal or financial ramifications of what I was about to do.

I nodded my agreement to the final terms and I’d be lying today if I said I knew any of those things he asked me on adoption day before being asked.

Hindsight Bias tells me now that if he would have circled back again and asked me if I wanted to change my mind after asking me all of the questions, I likely would have said, “yes, sir, I do want to change my mind.”

But he didn’t circle back and I didn’t recant; and the whole thing was over before I could really even process what I had just said yes to, and we were on our way home.

Without fanfare or family to celebrate the occasion, we left the courthouse and got in our vehicles, driving back home to my little house on my little street. The boundariless therapist who had supplied the matches I had recently used to set my life on fire had prepared us a meal, and I have a crystal clear picture today of the three of us sitting around the tall, blonde, butcher block style dining table I had purchased from Montgomery Ward when I first moved to Colorado, unconsciously rehearsing the lines for the new live-action film of our lives we would star in from that day forward.

You see, the time machine had reset more than his gender: It had also reset his name, his age, his backstory, and his status in the world.  He had gone into it as a very masculine but still XX chromosome genotypic and biologically phenotypic 22-year-old person alone in the world who maintained he cared little about anyone or anything—no doubt parts of a learned emotional toolkit essential for navigating the murky waters of lifelong severe abuse and neglect, and had emerged a different person. I can’t pretend to have grasped at that time what it meant for him to have, in one fell swoop, his lifelong plight of being born in the wrong body to a family of Neanderthals end, and then suddenly have the life he always dreamed of begin for him as he attended the birth of the person he always knew he was inside.  But I can say as I write this today—some decade and a half later— that I am still unable to imagine what that must have been like for him. And though I remain without the ability to describe the image my mind conjures, I can say what the feeling sense that washes over me when I think of what that must have been like for him was, and it’s pure nirvana.

So, I must say at this point, that the ending to this story is not any more predictable than the logistics of creating a grownup from the remnants of a half-grown child were back when this all began.  Things we never considered would be so breezy back then like the ease with which he would be able to change his driver’s license gender designation, or how his hysterectomy would get paid for under insurance legally, suddenly just kind of started happening. And then moving to a new place provided a natural environment for transmuting age to match development for a year or so, allowing him to experience being a teenage boy in the eyes of those looking on, followed by the perfect job presenting itself to him that allowed him freedom to travel, and anonymity with independence while working on getting testosterone injections prescribed by a doctor; another step that turned out to be pretty darn easy considering transgender medicine was not an open thing back then. Chest surgery was the most expensive part of this whole process, and happened only a few years into the transition, and even that was a fairly dreamy undertaking when all things are considered. But those mechanical pieces required along the path to making a man are the details of this story that do not belong to me to share with any more specificity than what I have already shared.

What I will share is that the now grownup human who I took part in creating all those years ago is predictably not who I had imagined he would be that day we sat around the Montgomery Ward butcher block table. My imagination back then was admittedly unrealistic as I was without the knowledge I have now about genetics, environment and human behavior in general to base any hypotheses on. The fully grown man is now predictably like the Neanderthals from whom he originated; and if I were doing this whole thing over again now, I would know to expect this particular outcome; saving myself the many years of heartache I have put myself through on the way to learning that a zebra cannot change his stripes no matter how much elbow grease you apply to scrubbing off what he was born with.

He has become who he always was: A person for whom acting is second nature. He’d been doing it his whole life before me, and so it came as naturally as breathing to him. It seemed back then to function as some type of regulator his brain needed when things felt too real, and likely began as a way to survive in a chaotic environment where being who you actually were was dangerous.  I am not sure why I ever expected him to tell me the truth about anything when the necessity of lying was his only real truth. But I did expect truth, and it did hurt me every time he lied to me despite the enormous “lies” we created together for him to become a man.  The irony that I would create such lies with him and for him is belly-laughable now when considered in the context of my mad skills as the human lie detector.  I must have opted then that the risk-benefit ratio supported the lies for the greater good because the person I am today and the person I like to think I always have been is not one who takes even necessary deception lightly.

And it wasn’t just me who compromised myself for this kid either, it was my family—his new family—that invested their skin in his game. And for the effort, it was as if he set out to disobey the rules established by every made-for-television movie ever written about getting a fresh start in life by disregarding all sacrifices made on his behalf. The people who took him in were not fringe hipsters who knew all the lingo and understood alternative lifestyles either.  These were Christian women and Southern men and they opened their hearts, minds, and homes to embrace him like he was always one of them.  These are people who cared about his outcome and wanted him to succeed.  These are the people who, for example, when caught off guard at his wedding with questions about his childhood were forced to decide on the spot to go along with his lies rather than bust him publicly to the new in-laws. I am talking about my mother, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles and cousins and siblings—people who stretched way beyond what their religious convictions, moral compasses, and lifelong teachings allowed in order to give him a space to be himself and heal from the childhood cross he bore.

And me? I admit it. I romanticized him becoming the guy who understood the value of his new male life because he had been marginalized and undervalued as a perceived non-male in a male-dominated world. And I imagined all the bridges he could build and all the ways he could use his new privilege to span equity gaps—one socially conscious conversation at a time.  I can’t say I imagined back then what the universe in which he would have the power and position to make anything better for anyone would look like, but now that his universe has fully formed, I see it is home to the perpetuation of antiquated gender norms among children, far right politics, and big-bellied bubbaisms on T-shirts designed to offend. So in short, he did not transform into the kind, sensitive, socially conscious, grateful, person I had imagined. And I set myself up by thinking he actually could. He was always the person he is today; and when his external gender finally matched his internal gender, he simply and quietly fell into his place at the white male privilege table as just another good old boy hanging with the other good old boys and talking about how the system is rigged against them.

I must now own that I am part of at least one system that was rigged against him.  I placed my expectations of him on a mountain that he had never once summited prior to becoming my legal son, and then I forgot along the way that he certainly didn’t agree to climbing any mountains once the ink was dry on the adult adoption papers. That mistake is on me, and looking back once more through the Hindsight Bias lens, I posit that I would not make the same mistake today if given the chance to do it all over.  I would still help the kid I met in the youth group—that is who I am after all—but it wouldn’t come with all the strings of expectation and it certainly would not require the web of deception we wove together.

It’s good to be able to say now that at least I can easily appreciate all I have learned from the process of my young self adopting an adult child, and then watching him become his truest self which just so happens to be someone completely incongruent with my truest self.  And it is from this position that I can now realize in a way I could never have all those years ago that despite the fact that I would not do it the same way if given the chance today, my first adoption experience was an integral part of my internal growth as a human, and as a parent, and as a friend, and as a mentor; and that can only mean that neither he nor I failed each other. In fact, the experience taught me that choices which seem to be made in the blink of an eye are never as simple as they seem.

-baba

Fantasy Island

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the new reading nook

Chapter One: Baba

Our kids changed schools this last year. If you’ve been following along, you know by now that we traveled via the Magic Treehouse to California last Fall only to return five months later after a fierce battle on Mount Tamalpais a la The Titan’s Curse which ended when we decided to give Atlas the world back. Two of our four kids were school-aged when we left Seattle last fall and now three of the four are starting back to school this fall. Our son Liam’s school is an alternative school—or more accurately termed—an option school within a public school system, and our guy Micah will begin kindergarten there as well in just over a month thanks to sibling preference eclipsing the almost 1000 non-sibling preference families jockeying for a coveted kindergarten spot this year.

Liam returned to his same school by some stroke of pure chance or divine intervention when we came back home early this year, falling easily back into his rhythm while vowing to never again leave his friends and the school’s comfort. Our older daughter, Hal, was placed in a different option school when we returned home since Liam’s option school had no openings in her grade and she wasn’t caught up academically enough to send her back to her regular school. And while her option assignment sounded good, to say that the experience was a disaster is an understatement. All of the option schools here have their schtick—something that they strive to be known for—and the school she received assignment to was the school that honors the people of the Northwest tribes.  Its webpage explains it as having a Native-focused, social justice teaching, tribal sovereignty curriculum—all things we were excited about given both older kids share a birth father who is Blackfeet Native, but the reality of her short tenure was anything but a “just” experience. She began being bullied by a fellow student on day one; and three weeks later, the bullying ended with my sending of this letter:

edit 2 prinicpalAnd with that, we found our city’s public school resource for homeschool families—a classroom and social environment for homeschooled kids that fuses the best of both classroom and homeschool worlds, is tuition free, and is staffed and run by genuinely nice people. The catch? A parent or responsible adult must to be onsite at all times the enrolled child is in attendance, which can be tough with four young children. But despite the physical location constraints placed on Mimi to sit with Hallie there four days a week, it was the best fit we had found since we left the comfort of her Waldorf school to travel out of state two schools ago and only 6 months earlier, and Hallie settled in there pretty quickly, actually. She made a friend or two, and she buckled down hard, continuing what amounted to a slow walk toward the goals she had sprinted for the whole time we were away and up the point at which she began the homeschool back in Seattle.  I am not sure why she slowed her pace so abruptly. Whether it was because she was disheartened that we were home and yet she wasn’t back to her actual school, or if it was just that she was tired of working so hard, we definitely felt the change in her enthusiasm to catch up at that point.

Sprint or stroll, it all paid off for her by the end of the school year. Thanks to her grit, the tutelage and patience of Mimi, and the love and care of some amazing staff and teachers in the two homeschool platforms she was in (Innovation Center of Encinitas in California and Cascade Parent Partnership in Seattle), she tested only slightly below grade level at the end of 2015-2016 school year; the closest she’s ever been to her peers in her entire life.  She has confidence reading that she has never enjoyed before now, and even today, a point located to the right of mid-summer on her sundial, she continues to make her way through the piles of books she’s collected over the last few years with an interest that I doubt is transient. And if you were to ask her why she suddenly worked so hard, she would tell you that it was all to return to her home school—Waldorf School—and to her beloved classroom teacher and the room where she works with the specialty teacher she adores.

I’ll say it again: We as parents did not set out to have a private school versus public school social experiment going on in our home and in our children’s educational spectra. In fact, I cannot say with any honesty that we set out to do any particular thing with our kids’ education in the beginning.  I knew three amazing sisters who graduated from a Steiner school when I owned a business in Colorado, and I always lightheartedly thought I’d love my kids to be like them if I ever had any. But that was about as far as I got with forethought before the stress and trauma of parenting a neglected and abused child from foster care rocked my world. My child was not like other kids in any way, and I’m not talking about the “all kids are different” kind of different either.  I am talking behaviors that aren’t in any parenting books, getting ejected from almost every daycare and preschool in the area before age four (over 10 if anyone is counting), and worries that the child won’t ever be able to attend any school different. I was just happy when a school would agree to consider her in those days, to break it down to the basics. Those were lonely, frustrating and hope-killing days, but even looking back now through my stress reaction vision, I gratefully acknowledge that the Universe held us up.  And even though it felt more like a pinball game than support, we seemed to always get bumped back into play just in the nick of time before we could fall into the chasm between the game’s flippers.

We had just returned from our trip into hiding out from the scary man when we got bumped hard enough to send us to Waldorf kindergarten.  And, even after factoring in the impact to our family’s economy and the academic foundational schism we created with our Waldorf school education choice and her early brain injury, the artistic development and social and emotional competency which has materialized over seven years in the Waldorf environment is more meaningful to me than any test scores ever could be.  That is why I want her to return there now.

But I am only one of several decision makers in this scenario. At this very moment, we await the answer to whether Waldorf school will even take her back this fall or if she will remain in the homeschool environment for the next three years.  She was tested there when we returned home this spring, and her increased abilities were apparent; but her classroom teacher remains unsure as to whether she can support Hallie in the main lesson environment.

Chapter Two: Mimi

Baba sounds sure that the Waldorf school is the place for Hallie.  As to whether Hallie finds community and safety in the walls of that school, however, I cannot be certain. I remember the days and weeks and years when Hallie would come home and cry about the other kids, the fights, and not feeling like there was a good friend network for her. I worry that the Waldorf school has been imbued with a fairy tale quality in her mind, but that in reality, the potential exists for her to be as unhappy there as she could be anywhere at this fragile age and stage in life.

Homeschooling is not a place I ever imagined I would be with my children after having been reared and educated in the public school system either. The responsibility is huge. I do not mind providing augmentation to my kids’ education such as help with homework or providing an alternative or more diverse perspective; and the orchestration of extracurricular experiences sounded almost fun before I started doing it, but it never occurred to be that I would be the actual education. And while the two homeschool platforms our daughter has experienced, ICE and Cascade, furnished a fabulous bridge for people who do want to be a large source of the education provided to their children, the commitment is astounding.

The program in California included more homework than I could have imagined for any child not in high school. The parents of children enrolled in ICE, for example, were required to provide 25% of the educational time and resources for their kids’ education.  That meant we spent hours every day at the dining room table doing math and reading homework and completing several in-depth projects. Despite the suffocating amount of work involved for all of us, I believe both Hallie and Liam thrived educationally within that framework. The projects were intensive and brought together all aspects of learning. Gains or no gains, though, I still was not sold on the idea of homeschooling when we left California, but after the experience of Hallie’s public option school was tremendously disheartening, we were kind of out on a limb.

I feel grateful that we were able to find Cascade and enroll Hallie in classes just in the nick of time. It was a fabulous experience with an incredibly caring staff and a good community of supportive parents and kids cradled in a safe environment. It proved to be a place where bullying was not tolerated and everyone recognizes that children have differences. The teachers and special education staff worked hard to create a safe and comfortable learning environment for Hallie, and she benefited from the effort. The school-family counselor, whose job it is to help the students and parents achieve learning goals, worked very hard for Hallie and for me, and always maintained her cheer and good spirit.

I am certainly anything but an extrovert. I would rather hide behind sunglasses and earbuds than socialize with any person, at nearly any time. That said, the families and parents at Cascade are genuinely friendly; and though for me, the experience was somewhat overwhelming because of my true nature to run away from people, it was a great place to be, and perhaps, would be a great place to stay.

And, Cascade is certainly not why Hallie’s education curve plateaued when we returned to Seattle. I think that Hallie’s pace slowed because the coursework changed from the prolific project work and a gazillion packets of more work sent home daily, to something more manageable; and so in contrast, she seemed generally to have slowed down. Further, Hallie treated the classroom space at Cascade as an independent place for her rather than a collaborative education space for her teachers, herself and me, as it is designed to be. Her reading is what truly improved when we came back home, and that was definitely owing to the time she spent in the school library at Cascade. The librarian there is integral to class supply ordering and family support, and she really seemed to enjoy watching Hallie’s enthusiasm for reading bloom, and encouraged her.

So, here is where the hammer falls: I worry about sending Hallie back to the Waldorf school when, for six years, that setting was unable to encourage and foster an obvious love of reading which now exists in her. I also worry about sending Hallie back to the Waldorf school for fear she may just slide back into dysfunctional classroom habits and not be able to lateralize her new skills and educational competence to an old setting. On the whole, instructors have stated that Hallie is fabulous in classes as long as she is doing what she wants to do; but also clear from all of the teacher reviews we have received through the years for Hallie, is that she is driven to stubbornly support her personal beliefs in how certain things are done, and simply refuses to consider that she might be wrong. Also, she became accustomed to high amounts of self-regulation and liberties at the Waldorf school; and as a result, would miss the forest for the trees such as focusing on the art work in her self-made instructional materials while completely neglecting the written aspect of the assignment.

I worry that she is internally driven to pine for the Waldorf school as she is pining now with the same homemade lantern walk lights in her eyes she had for the lower grades but that now she will find that it is not what she remembers or had hoped for. I worry that Hallie will stagnate educationally without the push she has experienced this year from the educators and parents who have been highly involved in her learning, and I worry that she will fall back into her old ways and more staunchly fight the need for the extra help she requires.

On a lighter note, I don’t feel like a decision we make with regard to Hallie’s education now will cause her to be irrevocably damaged, though I am pretty sure that Baba does worry about this. Kids are homeschooled, public schooled, and private school educated all the time—and while some do fall into the tragic abyss of lifelong unhappiness, that is not the norm.  We are doing the best we can for her and for all four of our kids, and what I think we need to remember is that we always come from the place of trying to give them whatever we can to best meet their needs.  And, most importantly, it’s not really up to us at this point anyway. The Waldorf school administration and teachers are making a decision that might make all this hair pulling and nail biting for naught when they ultimately decide that they cannot take Hallie back into the classroom.

Chapter Three: Mr. Roarke and Baba

So, here we sit; two parents—two opinions, and only weeks from the eighth year of the school journey with our kids. We are now seasoned veterans of navigating school systems. We are experienced in public schools and private schools; homeschools and option schools; alternative schools and parochial schools; and we have the data to compare, contrast and conclude based on what we have seen, yet we still cannot make a unified sound decision when it comes to our oldest daughter.

I’ve stated my romanticized notions of what her life will be like if she is allowed to remain in the Waldorf school and can continue to grow in her artistic abilities, social consciousness, and simplistic beauty, and I can also see her doing well and being happy wherever she ends up.  But what is right and what is wrong? What if I force the issue of her being in the Waldorf school, and it amounts to nothing more than manipulating her fate inappropriately, and it backfires? What if she is supposed to be in the homeschool platform and I neglect to consider its value? What if she is supposed to be in Waldorf school and I don’t fight hard enough to make her case, and they don’t take her  back?

And so continues the free fall into the murky pit of insecurity booby-trapped with the fear of dire consequences for our daughter’s future. And while falling through the dark space, looking for a ledge or a tree branch to grab onto, conspicuously forgettable scenes from the dual incarnations of a television series called Fantasy Island begin to come into focus.

Fantasy Island ran for seven seasons with cultish popularity.  Played by actor Ricardo Montalbon, the lead character, Mr. Roarke, was the inscrutable administrator of a mystifying island located in the Pacific Ocean on which guests arrived each week for a price of what would be $200,000 today to have their dreams come true.  Every show kicked off with Mr. Roarke explaining the incoming guests’ fantasies to his assistant, Tattoo, and then, with what appeared to be crystal ball insight, he considered the outcomes of each fantasy and the moral retribution necessary for manipulating fate.  His pressed white suit and angelic nuance supported the insinuation that Mr. Roarke had magic; but whatever he had, he could use it to conjure any environment necessary to transform fantasies into realities for his guests.  Fortunately, Mr. Roarke also knew exactly the right time to step in and save guests from themselves when passion and desire overrode common sense and good judgment. The show was my first realization that there is a yang to every yin and that there will always be something to lose when something is gained.  Most importantly, though, Mr. Roarke taught me to be careful what I wish for.

Someone in Televisionland decided to resurrect Fantasy Island more than a decade after the original show ended, and brought in Malcolm McDowell to play Mr. Roarke. And Perhaps because McDowell will forever be linked in my mind with A Clockwork Orange, one of the most disturbing movies ever made, more than just his black suit was darker than Montalbon’s Roarke. McDowell’s Roarke made no attempt to hide the fact that he had supernatural powers, nor did his shape-shifting accomplice, Ariel.  And unlike the warm and kind relationship the old Mr. Roarke had with Tattoo, the new Mr. Roarke made it sport to intimidate and harass his help; keeping them in some type of purgatory on the island.  Also, in contrast to the painful but bearable lessons doled out by Montalbon’s Roarke, McDowell’s character appeared to revel in the “careful what you wish for” adage.  McDowell’s Roarke did grant wishes and fulfill fantasies as Montalbon’s had; however, the whole thing seemed to hurt a lot more on McDowell’s island.

McDowell’s or Roarke’s island, every person who stepped out of the plane there each week had an agenda, whether they knew it or not at the outset. And be it a long lost part of self in need of rediscovery or a chance to make a better decision or be a better person, some time on Fantasy Island always showed guests something they needed to see; painful lesson at no extra charge.

Whichever island our daughter’s metaphorical plane lands on to begin the school journey this fall, my singular hope is that she will land safely in the place farthest away from any Fantasy Island created by the unwitting manipulations of her well-meaning parents.  I’ll gladly take the painful lesson if she can be in the place most hers. And when we do finally land there after this arduous mental journey, I’ll be looking out the window for the white-suited Mr. Roarke, Tattoo at his side, to know it is safe to deplane.

~baba and mimi

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