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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Sunday, April 30, 2006

More Adoption Thoughts/Dreams

Not only have I been thinking about my own adoption, and adoptions that have surrounded me at work, but I've been thinking a lot about wanting to foster or adopt kids as well. I know, before you all keel over from a collective heart attack. It seems like a sort of insane idea. But you know how ideas can seem insane because they are completely new, but then you meet people who are actually doing those things, and it feels like the most normal thing in the world.

It started when a good friend of mine adopted two sisters from foster care a few years back. They were ten and twelve years old then, and they have integrated into her family in the most wonderful way. She and her husband already had three children (one in college), and so now they have five. And it all seems to work out in a slightly more complex but really lovely way. The girls are doing great. The rest of their family is doing great. And it seems like the most normal and wonderful thing in the world. These people encountered a lot of shock and dismay when they told people they were (gasp!) adopting two children who were (gasp!) NOT BABIES. They came with their own histories, habits, ideas. They weren't little blank slates that could then be written upon. They were, and are, their own people. Many people couldn't handle this idea. But guess what? It's worked out great.

Then my best friend adopted the world's most adorable godchild ever, from India.

Then, a few months ago, a woman named Annie Kassof showed up to one of my home readings holding an impossibly adorable baby boy. She read from the anthology Using Our Words while jiggling and shifting him from arm to arm, about how she has serially fostered about twenty babies over the past several years. I was riveted.

I love babies. I completely adore babies. Most people have their "favorite ages" of children, and I have to say that I am a total sucker for babies. And it suddenly occurred to me, that this could be a way to have babies, over and over and over again. And to give these tiny people a refuge in their limbo.

Then I've been spending way too many hours scrolling through the photolistings at AdoptUSKids, and looking at the various heart galleries, including the Bay Area Heart Gallery, and my own heart has been melting into a total puddle. Heart Galleries are these incredible photo galleries of kids-who-are-waiting-to-be-adopted, their portraits taken by professional photographers in the most compelling ways imaginable- showing them to be individual, unique, beautiful humans. And suddenly I started dreaming about all these three-sibling groups. Vivid, real dreams.

(snap) And then she woke up.

Yeah. I know. It's not going to happen now. I am already overwhelmed and overextended beyond belief. I'm already tightly smushed into the Sandwich Generation. But it won't always be like this. I know that, too. And then maybe our doors will open a little wider and we'll be able to say yes to someone who is waiting out there.

Onother thing: our daughters are so lucky. They have every possible advantage and privilege in the world. And I think about the half million children in this country who have no home, no family, nobody looking out for them. It just doesn't seem fair or right.

But it's not the right time. Not this week, anyway. Probably not this year. But some day.

In the meantime, I decided to do the one thing that is feasable right now. I've decided to become a VMentor (virtual mentor) for a foster youth who has "aged out" of the foster system, someone who wants to go to college or become trained in some kind of work, and who has nobody to shepherd them into adulthood. The VMentor program, organized through the Orphan Foundation of America, is a pitifully small commitment: they ask you to email your mentee twice a week, offering support, friendship, a little bit of an anchor in the big world. I can do that. I want to do a lot more, but for now, I can do that.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Adoption Up Close

I've been wanting to blog about adoption for a long time now but hadn't gotten around to it. But yesterday's events brought it up closer than it has been for a long time.

When I was in my twenties, I was obsessed with adoption and adoption-related themes. I read every book I could, I belonged to multiple support groups, I searched for adoption movies and ultimately co-edited a book about adoption. I had recently contacted members of my birth family, and it was a huge roller coaster of emotion. But then years passed, and things with the birthfamily took a sudden turn for the worse, and I closed it all off. I felt oversaturated; done with it, at least with that level of intensity. There were many years of adoption hiatus.

But last year I started working for an organization called Pact, an Adoption Alliance, and suddenly adoption has come front and center again. I feel connected to my work, and feel that it is meaningful in the deepest way to me. I've been speaking about being adopted, and writing about it more again. Last year I had a profound experience when a newborn baby who was waiting for her adoptive parents spent a few hours in the office, and I had a very trippy re-living of my own waiting time, in the Spence-Chapin office, the day in 1959 when my own parents came to bring me home.

Yesterday was a wholly different up-close experience with adoption. I had just come home from my water-aerobics class, and was about to shower, when the phone rang. It was my co-worker at Pact. Friday was the Spanish-speaking social worker's day off, and a woman had just appeared in the office, saying something about a baby.

I can't say a whole lot more about the situation, because of confidentiality, but the next several hours involved me speaking a lot of somewhat panicky Spanish with this woman who had given birth the day before and then had somehow found her way to our office. I was awed, anguished, astounded, moved, distraught, elated (thinking of the waiting parents who were about to receive some very exciting news). The things that people go through. I saw in her my own birthmother and the millions of other women who have to endure these things. It was wrenching and haunting and humbling. I like to think that I was able to offer her some comfort and solace with my bumbling but trying-hard Spanish. I found that maybe my Spanish isn't so bad. I heard some awful, awful things. I felt like I really saw a human being, and I really saw suffering. I'll say it again: it humbled me.

I was hoping-hoping-hoping that I might be able to take care of her baby for a day or two, while things get sorted out, but I have a big fundraiser to do tomorrow (if you are reading this, and it is before noon on Sunday, April 30th, PLEASE COME!!), so the baby will be with a family who have this amazing job of caring for newborns in this in-between phase of their lives.

I think of my own in-between phase a lot, and the people who took care of me before I found my parents, or they found me. The nurses in the hospital where I stayed for a month, and the "boarding mother" where I stayed for another two months after that. I used to have a little set of typed notes that they had given my mother when they turned her over to me. Those small instructions, about liking to be propped in the corner of the couch, about liking to watch other children (what other children?! who were they??) mean a lot to me.

Being so close to adoption is a good thing for me these days. It is healing, and it is searing, both at the same time.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Beach Reading

I did an informal poll around the pool and beach last week, to see what other people were reading. I spotted multiple copies of the DaVinci Code, with, what, its fifth or sixth cover now? Multiple copies of A Million Little Pieces, and many copies of Reader's Digest. Oh boy! And a regular assortment of what I call "airport books" - mystery and thriller stuff. I was chagrined to find not one literary novel.

My idea of beach reading is something that I can really sink my teeth, or my brain, into, while my body is totally slothing about. I can't zone out both physically and mentally. And when I'm home, overwhelmed with the multiple jobs of teaching, working, organizing, momming and daughtering, it just seems a bit much to pick up a book like this just when I need some rest. So when my husband offered me up his copy of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel at the beach, I picked it up. It weighs about as much as a roast chicken. It's a heavy book, and it's also a heavy book, if you know what I mean. The basic premise is an attempt to answer the question, "Why do some (few) people in the world have all the goodies, and most of the people have almost nothing?"

The answers are pretty breathtaking, especially given the context of reading the book while at a resort populated with about 95% European Americans, while being waited on hand and foot by about 99% people of Mayan descent. It's right there. One day I was sitting on our lovely balcony, looking out at the pretty turquoise sea, and I saw this man working in the adjacent dried out, hurricane-ravaged, endless looking jungle. I knew it was absolutely sweltering out there. I couldn't even bear to sit in the sun on a lounge chair, let alone hacking away at gnarly brances with a machete. And yet there he was, and there was I.

Why? How did this all happen? Jared Diamond takes it back to prehistoric times, to the early humans, some of whom had the good luck to figure out stone tools and then progress to things like metal tools and writing. Some of them had the tough, survival-driven life of hunter-gatherers, based on what kinds of vegetation and animals they lived near, and others had the relative luxury of becoming farmers. For so many millions of people, it came down to the luck of being born in a good place or a hard place. And so it continues.

And I'm still wracking my little pea brain trying to figure out how to help, or how not to hurt. I'm trying to do good work.

This was the first vacation I've ever taken like this, the fancy kind. The kind I'm more used to, and the kind I feel more comfortable with, is camping, or taking a bunch of middle schoolers to Guatemala to learn Spanish and do community service, or taking a bunch of health care workers to Nicaragua to share their experiences and learn a bunch themselves, or wandering around Nepal or Burma and really talking to people. Reaching out a little bit. Or else just going and hanging out with friends and family in the places where they live.

Maybe I read Guns, Germs and Steel at the beach because I just couldn't stand being that comfortable in a place like that. And I wasn't.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Practicing Resurrection

I decided not to go to church today. I was looking for something that I knew I wouldn't find: the wise and comforting words of two ministers who left our church years ago. A husband and wife team, Rob & Janne Eller-Isaacs, left California for Minnesota in 2000, and church has not been the same for me. I loved them for their intelligence and their humanity, and the way they never failed to use poetry or literature in their sermons. My favorite sermons were their Easter sermons; they spoke to me in a way that broke me down and lifted me up. I always wept, and came away feeling eager for life. I knew that if I went to my Oakland church, they would not be there, and I was afraid of feeling disappointed.

So I googled their classic Easter sermon, "Practicing Resurrection," and lo and behold, there it was. Sometimes I am so awed and grateful for technology. I didn't need to go anywhere today. I sat on my bed with my wet, just-showered hair, and wept with happiness to read these words. Many Easters ago, I was a sad and broken person. Rob and Janne said these words, or something like them, from a borrowed pulpit in downtown Oakland, and I have never been so rapt or so transformed by anything I've ever heard in a church. Reading them again, it made me realize that I've come a long way from that broken place. I'm grateful, and I'm glad.

Thank you Rob and Janne. Your words echo with me on this gray and drizzly Easter.

Without death, without an awareness of the brokenness and dark, lonely places in life, there can be no full or deeper appreciation of the deeper message of this season. Those of us who have known the dark, lonely places know that life will assert itself again, as it always does. You might think this holiday is just about bunnies and chocolate eggs. But for those of us who have known pain and suffering there is a deeper and more powerful significance to these days.

Most every religion has a story about resurrection. When most of us think about resurrection, we think about the resurrection of Jesus. But resurrection occurs all around us all year long. It is occurring outside as we sit together. Something died this winter. As the cycle of life moves us forward, we let another year go by. As it passed, we let go of all the unfulfilled dreams and promises that we had imagined at the beginning. Gone forever are the chances you didn't take, the old possibilities you wouldn't try, the new leaves you didn't turn over, and the dozens of ways large and small that you stayed smaller when you should have become larger. But those have died with the dying of the cold, harsh winter. Dreams spring eternal; so we get up try again.

Resurrection comes in many guises, in the shape of relationships revived and renewed, of exploring neglected talents, of pursuing interests that long lay dormant, of finding new strength and possibilities in your own life. For others, it comes when courage touches your heart and hope reaches your soul; when you engage the world as a challenge and opportunity, when you are realistic about your capacities and capability and you let humor into your far too serious life. Resurrection is about saying no to self-imposed limits and yes to seeing the abundant simple beauty in this one, sweet life.

Thomas Wolfe wrote in You Can't Go Home Again: "Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements, trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the best above the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April." (okay, at this point, sitting in the church, I would be totally bawling)

I'm talking about resurrection of your heart in the midst of pain, of your spirit in the midst of despair and deception, of your soul in the midst of loneliness and confusion. I'm talking about the daily miracles of hope without which we would not live, but only survive.

So when you see the signs of spring and Easter again today, remember that they are but reminders of the flower growing up through the cement and that life really is more powerful than death. And that if we open our eyes to the signs of life, we will see that they are everywhere around us.

Remember that your will to live is more powerful than death and that you practice resurrection throughout your life. Practice it today.

Back to the Rain

I'm home. I have to say that on Friday, as I was walking the blistering hot streets of Playa del Carmen, I had a bit of longing for the rain and cool weather of home. I saw this little necklace and it just filled me with homesickness. I bought it to remind me of the cool wet days awaiting me.

But it's strange that it's SO wet and rainy on Easter Sunday. Everything feels off. I returned home so late last night, there wasn't time to get adjusted and plan an Easter meal. The girls are both off with friends, which is just as well. It gives me a long, lazy morning to play Easter Bunny (even though they are 11 and 15, they still want the time honored Easter egg hunt, so I'm hiding plastic eggs all over the house). I'm trying to decide whether or not to go to church this morning. Easter has long been my very favorite holiday and the only religious holiday that really has meaning for me. Suffering and rebirth. But the suitcases are unpacked, and I'm still in my pajamas, and it's raining, and I don't know if I'm going to actually make it in time.

I've missed blogging, a lot. So often during this week I've been composing imaginary blog posts in my head (is that weird?). I've missed reading other peoples' blogs. More about this later. It was good to be away, very restful, but also good to be back. I'm ready to re-enter life.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Some Much Needed R & R

This is where I'll be for a week. I'll be back Easter Sunday!


Thanks to Rebecca at Writing Blind for cracking me up this morning. I needed it. Last night I taught my last class for the semester. It's been a very up and down semester - I have great students, but they seemed to fall away, more and more every week, and I think we ended the semester with a grand total of nine. It was hard not to take it personally sometime, but the little group that remained were really wonderful. We had a pizza party and talked about the writing life, and I got to speak with everyone one-on-one for a little bit. I was all adrenalized and happy when I was packing up last night.

This morning I was rushing all about picking up kids for my 4-kid carpool, and I just dashed out of the house. I got to the office, ready to work, and pulled my laptop out of its case. No power cord. Damn. I knew I'd have to make a 45-minute round trip drive back home. I drove home. I tore the house apart. No power cord. I'd come home really late last night, tired, and checked a few emails before going to bed, but never plugged it in. So where was my cord?

I drove over to Berkeley. It took me 15 minutes to find a parking space. I scoured the classroom, went to the Lost & Found box, talked to the administrator, the tech assistant, and the security guard. None of them had seen my power cord.

I can't work without being plugged in. My whole life is in this computer. My work life, my writing life, everything. I trudged over to the Mac store on Shattuck. They could replace my Apple cord for ninety bucks, or give me some generic one for fifty. I took the generic one. I drove back to work.

That all took two hours. Grumpy. So thanks, Rebecca, for the funny dog blog cartoon. I needed it today.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I've Been Snarked

So I've received the very dubious honor of being named "Nitwit of the Day" by Miss Snark, the snarky literary agent. Last week I entered her short-story contest and emailed in a story that had a bunch of mandatory random phrases. (except, darn, I forgot to include "Bat Segundo" and thus have 10 points subtracted) This morning I noticed that my story was #65 in the queue, and she had actually given it some not totally cruel feedback. "I'm amazed at entire stories that manifest in 338 words!" The strange thing is that I could've sworn it was like 499 words. I really worked to eliminate any extras.

So this morning, I was checking my Suspected Spam box, and saw that an email from Miss Snark has arrived about two minutes previous. I immediately answered back, thanking her for notifying me that my story had been posted. Then I went to the site and see that she was writing about the Nitwit of the Day, and it had been ME. She was having a total snarkfit because she had received an automated response saying that she her email was going into my Suspect File because she wasn't in my address book. I wrote her back quickly as a way to let her know that I had indeed read her email, even if she hadn't filled out the little form.

This happens all the time. I regularly receive about 300 "regular" spam emails a day, and about 50-80 "suspected" spam emails. About five out of those 50-80 are from people I really want to hear from. Most of them fill out the little form, and even the ones who don't, go directly into my regular address book. Most people don't have a fit about it. But Miss Snark spluttered away.

Well, let's see. You send in a contest entry. You think you might hear back?
Well, she received about 111 entries. No, I did not think I was going to hear back by email. I thought it was all going to take place on her website.
What if this was something that MATTERED?? See below.
I've yapped about this before; if you send something to an agent, list the email you send to in your address book. You look like a nitwit if I get this. Save your nitwittery for people who are clueless--not YOU!!! I don't even know what this last sentence means.

So I look like a nitwit. And guess what: I got two "request to be added to your address book" last week from two agents, both of whom were interested in working with me, and both of whom did not blow a gasket because they were not already in my address book. I added them both immediately, responded immediately, and all was well.

All I can say is, I'm glad that my agent is my agent, and that Miss Snark isn't. So. I'm guessing I'm not going to be winning that short story contest! (Miss Snark awards 27 random points just for the heck of it, and I think she'd like to eviscerate me, just for the heck of it)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Ito Does Kung Fu

Yesterday I went back to my personal trainer for the first time since almost having pneumonia. I was still coughing away, and I felt nervous. Normally he pushes me to the absolute max, pumping away on the stationery bike, or running through a hilly cemetery or walking the length of the gym like a spider. It's a killer. Just a few days ago, when I had a ton of gunk in my lungs, I wasn't able to cross the street or climb a flight of steps without panting.

So I approached the gym with a bit of trepidation. But things were feeling different. Instead of the blaring mega-funk that's usually going on in there, there was this soft, tinkly Asian music. My trainer was with another client, doing this amazingly graceful moves in tandem. It looked so cool, beautiful yet requiring a lot of strength. They kept this up for about ten minutes while I watched, all awestruck.

Then it was my turn. I apologized because I was wearing regular street clothes, and I didn't even have my sneakers. I'm always late for my sessions, and I've gained a reputation for that, which I hate. But when I'm at work it seems there's always one more thing to finish, one more phone call to make, one more email to answer, and before I know it, I'm late. I didn't have time to rush home and get my workout stuff, so I just drove straight to the gym. On time, maybe even a little early, but unprepared.

He said it was okay. He saw me standing there coughing, as weak as a mouse. He said, "We're going to do something different today." Fine by me. He started teaching me some of those flowing cool moves. Oooh! It was not easy. I am not the world's most coordinated person. I'm probably in the lowest 5th percentile of people who are not actually disabled. But I pressed on. The pretty music was still playing. It was the greatest feeling. I could feel my lungs opening up, my muscles getting some blood back into them, my joints oiling up for the first time in weeks. Boy, it felt good. But he wasn't killing me.

I learned about three or four of these movement patterns. It was great. Then I asked, "What IS this that we're doing?" And he said, "Kung fu." I nearly fell on the mat laughing. "You're kidding!"

Of course I flashed right back to the 70's TV show with fake-Asian David Carradine. My family and I were absolute devotees of that show, because a show with fake Asians is better than one with no Asians at all. And anyway, he was playing a hapa, which made my little heart go pitter-pat. Plus, it had an actor in it called Robert Ito (who later played a major role on the Quincy show with Jack Klugman), and watching the credits roll was always a thrill.

Then my teacher said, "Running is kung fu. Your writing is kung fu. Anything that you do with purpose and effort and skill is kung fu." A ha. I almost expected him to place his hand on my head and call me Grasshopper, but he didn't.

Whatever it was, I could use more of it. It was way cool. And the perfect way to return to the land of the living after the past few weeks.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Lunchbox Inadequacy

I know that I'm a terrible mom when it comes to packing my kids' school lunches. I've even been mean enough to make them pack their own lunches, since they were in fifth grade. I had gotten really tired of them complaining, or not eating what I packed, so I made a deal. We would go grocery shopping together, stock up the fridge and pantry, and then they were on their own to pack something they knew they would be willing to eat. Of course they've been telling me how MEAN I am, and that they are the ONLY kids whose moms don't personally make their lunches.

So imagine my total chagrin when Christine (thanks a lot pal!) sent me a link to this woman who not only packs the most nutritious and beautiful and varied and amazing bento-box lunches for her kids every day, she photographs them too. As if to rub it in. Believe me, it's rubbing!

Now please, don't show my kids.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Good Mailbox

I've been a little reticent about posting this news, because of what Wendy said about the evil eye and announcing good news, but I can't help it. I've been waiting all week for it to be official, and it finally is: I have an agent! It happened in a crazy kind of roundabout way, but I couldn't be more thrilled. My official "author representation" contract arrived in yesterday's mail. My signed copy is going out in today's. Good mailbox!

Total Hapaness

I know it makes me sound like a total geezer, but I never thought I would live to see the day when there were books and movies about hapas - half-Asian people, like me. I really felt like a unicorn when I was growing up; some solitary kind of creature that had no matching kind. About once a year (maybe more?) I remember my mother nudging me on the subway, pointing with her chin at someone. "I bet that person's hambun-hambun," she'd say. "Like you." And I'd stare and stare with eyes like plates, trying to discern some connection. Once I followed a girl around this sock-and-underwear outlet store for half an hour, my heart pounding. I wanted to ask her. "Are you... half and half?" But I chickened out. What would I have said if she said yes? "So am I!" And then what?

Now there are organizations for hapas, and magazines. There are books and movies and T-shirts discussion groups and websites. This week there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a new book by hapa Kip Fulbeck.
He is one cool hapa. He's made a lot of videos, including a really funny one where he insists that he bears total resemblance to all of Disney's ethnically ambiguous animated characters: Mowgli, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Lilo. He's right, too!

When I was younger, being hapa made me feel freaky. The thing that was the worst was when people would ask, "What are you?" and I could really do nothing more than shrug. I could say I was half Japanese, but when they pressed me for "What is the other half?" I could only respond, "Your guess is as good as mine." Which is what differentiated me from other hapas in a big way. They could look at each of their different halves, mirrored in their parents. Since I was adopted, I coudn't. I still can't, and I still don't know the answer to that question.

But it's a happy thing to be hapa these days. I feel like I have lots of company, and it isn't such a freaky thing anymore. In fact, I realize that I like being just a little bit freaky, or different. When I visited Hawaii for the first time, I thought I would love it, being in the land of the hapas! My place, my people! I was surprised at how suddenly invisible I felt: not different anymore.

I see hapas every day now, on the sidewalks, in stores, in mainstream media. It's kind of shocking, and kind of great. My favorite new famous hapa is K.T. Tunstall, a Chinese-Scottish songwriter. She rocks.