Dispatch from the edge of recession: the in-between.

The in-between: in which I have an emotional breakdown and lament on the trials of the day

I hope that years from now this phase of my life seems really carefree, days upon days of taking time at my own pace, and that my worry and fear will appear silly in the face of the career I am in. I will be able to look back and laugh confidently, wondering why I ever doubted myself, my goals, and my hard work and perseverance, because, of course, it would all work out. It will seem funny, youthful, and I will wonder how I didn't enjoy all that freedom a little bit more.

It is hard to enjoy freedom when you haven't figured out the end game. Bills need to be paid. I love the life I have and the people and pastimes and little bits in it, and I want it to be able to continue; that means, employment.

That's a lot of pressure. Days tick away, one after the other, and I have no resolution, no out to save me at the end of this little game, of this not-working thing. I have been blessed with a connection that lead to the current project I am doing, archiving the 1960s-era falling-to-pieces scrapbooks of a woman who lives in Buckhead, which has gotten me through August.

On top of that, I've been working on the bindings of some quilts that a local woman (Ellen Baker) is featuring in her forthcoming quilt/sewing book, and I'm even getting credit in the resources section. Had I not been in this in-between situation, I never would have approached others for outside-the-box ways to use my skills to earn money, and I wouldn't have been involved in this project at all. Instead, I have done two quilts and am working on a third.

When I think about opportunities and the proverbial doors and windows opening and closing, I know (well, I really hope) that this period of pause is really because the right thing hasn't arisen. Maybe I still have to work a few more shitty jobs in order to really appreciate the life that is ahead of me. But that doesn't make it any easier for my pride or confidence when I ponder walking into restaurants and the mall to inquire about minimum-wage work. I have two degrees. As I said, maybe someday this will all be funny. I can write about it in my memoir, laughing lazily on the other side of all this, a la Stephen King and Tina Fey. It was immensely pleasing to listen to both their memoirs on audiobook, as each of them reads his and her own to you--it's like having a conversation with them--and hearing them recount the jobs they had on the way to their lifetime jobs. Stephen King did the laundry for hospitals and restaurants--all blood and maggots and old food--and it truly calmed me down. At the time, last summer, I was working at the worst job I've ever had, in miserable conditions, and I was probably truly depressed (a first in my life). I just hated my job so much, I was viscerally angry at work. It helped having Stephen and Tina to remind me that, yes, when life sucks, you do appreciate the good so much more when it comes along.

Likewise, as I am facing now, when life is a giant, enormous question mark with a blurry and mysterious future beyond that, I will appreciate the security and steadfastness of the next chapter when it comes along. It is a luxury like no other to receive steady paychecks; what a peace of mind that is. I miss it. But, there is also liberation and sweetness in this edge of the comfort zone; nothing is stopping me from exploring other possibilities, in terms of what I want to do, what kind of work I like or want to try, and considering routes I might never have imagined if I had been able to hop cozily from school to professional life.

The in-between.

(Because did I mention, there are no jobs to hop into? I fit in no easy categories like "Healthcare" or "Engineering." Try finding the Public History category on a jobs site.)

It is easy to wax about how everything will work out, this too shall pass, take it one day at a time, relax, it will all work out. That doesn't make reality any easier though, really. Not right now, with no end game. Having a month of not working would be seriously excellent if I knew I was starting a job September 1 or something like that.

The stress of it all reached a head yesterday, quite unexpectedly and quite publicly. It began with something entirely unrelated to the terrible economy and the miserable job hunt.

I had to mail two packages, for Ben, because yes, he is employed (ugh). I do not to go the U.S. Post Office enough to ever remember that they do not share free tape and use of scissors with you. So if you don't have boxes in your homes to prepare before you leave, you must bring your own tape and scissors. The man at the counter was so rude to me, unwarranted, that it kind of spiraled out of control from there. I was pulling and ripping and finally tearing the tape with my car key, making a huge scene because I was so annoyed with this rude man. I used a pair of my own pants as packing material for this expensive package, because darned it anyone was going to provide any old newspaper for me there. By the time he was chastising me for having used the wrong type of tape on the wrong type of package (the tape he gave me!), I actually yelled back at him. If you know me, you know how surprising this is--it was surprising to me. I am very non-confrontational and I really try hard to give people in crappy jobs the benefit of the doubt. I am never rude to people even when I am really angry in a store; I just feel it leads all of us nowhere fast. I've been yelled at before working retail, and there's nothing to be done by it, no resolution. I am kind and helpful, but some people are just awful people who are angry. Not my problem. But I defended myself about this ridiculous issues with the tape. And immediately after speaking my mind, I broke down. Slow at first, but then I could not speak, and then, as the woman, the other postal worker, tried to fix the wrong-tape issue for me, the tears ran down my face and I was just outwardly crying. At the post office. Over tape and a mean man.

I should have known then there was a lot of emotion right at the surface, and it would have been best to just head home and call this day shot. But the tape thing didn't seem at all related to the job hunt, and it probably isn't, so I drove to do my next errand: return some public library books and then walk to the Georgia State University campus to utilize some of the resources of their Career Services Center.

Three minutes into a conversation with one of the career services counselors, I'm literally sobbing. Heaving. We're sitting at a long conference table in their open offices, and a couple of undergrads are waiting in their hoodies and sandals for their own resume help after me. Oh, but I am a mess, and they nervously sit there as the counselor ushers me off to a private little table where I can recollect. She had simply asked me why I was there. My own explanation was so depressing, so disheartening, so hopeless, I couldn't even explain myself without breaking down in tears, voice cracking, nose sniffling. Oh, how professional, Jessie; just put on your cute clothes and bring your cotton-paper resume down to the Career Services center and cry like a friggin' baby. I felt utterly ridiculous. I was also acutely aware of frightening the undergrads, who are still in that nice little coccoon of school, not a worry or care about how impossible it will be for them to find a job after graduation. Yes, guys, I've been applying to jobs and networking and tailoring my resume to every single job for nice months now, and applying to jobs I really felt qualified for, and I've had one phone interview.

Maybe the economy is always something people complain about, but I would like to submit a formal complaint to it right now. This sucks. Generation Screwed, as we were recently called. Maybe in ten years this will all be hilarious, and we will all be stronger and better-adjusted for it. That would be the least it could do, for all the underemployment it breeds now. It was never unemployment that scared me--I have always held down multiple part-time jobs and gotten top grades in school, finding a job wouldn't be too hard. Finding a job that is neither food services nor insurance sales--now that is the real and true challenge.

The staff of the career services center were all wonderful and helpful, and the woman in particular who helped me was very kind and supportive during my meltdown. I'm meeting with a guy later this week who will help me nail down some sort of plan on applying for jobs. Because apparently the plan I've been mentored to take for the past nine months is absolutely worthless. I do not feel confident that this will make much difference, but I damn well need to try it anyway, because October rent is calling already, etched out there in the not-so-distant future. I salvaged the day after a chat with my mom, as I just wanted to hear about someone else's life, and not think about my own for awhile. We eventually got on the subject of my two very public breakdowns within an hour of each other, and she suggested I also set myself up with career services at the Georgia Department of Labor. So I went to waited in line and got myself into their system of job postings and referrals. There are a lot of insurance sales positions on their job lists, too. Ugh. But there are a few tiny hopefuls too.

Leaving the Department of Labor office, I stopped at a trifecta intersection that has a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Caribous all facing one another and got myself a chai tea, which was my greatly needed sweet heaven and relaxation. (I went to Caribou, the one I find least often.) And I got in my car to drive back home and NPR was there with my daily reminder, my essential perspective on this wide world. I kid you not this is what I heard:

A 14-year-old girl in Afghanistan was recounting her plight: sold to another family when she was eight to pay off a debt, and married to a boy from that family at around ten, while being sexually abused by uncles and others in the family. A few years later, she is drugged and wakes up married to a different man in that family, and the assault continues. She tries to kill herself in the street at age fourteen, but someone stops her and takes her to a shelter for young girls and women. This girl is living in a culture where even when you work up the courage to defend your rights as a woman, the men in your family will strike down harder and with more violence for your wanting to defend yourself. It is a real and dangerous conundrum. While my problems are real to me, they did seem so small comparatively. Yes, that is true, I still have my freedom, I can speak my mind, I can even blog about it online, with my high-speed internet access in my own home. I can drive my car down to the resource centers that have been created to help people find work. And in a few days, I will be fortunate enough to be able to pay my own rent, with money I earned. That is quite a lot to be thankful for. Leave it to NPR to shake me back into a larger perspective. This too shall pass. One day at a time. Someday you'll back back and laugh.

The Life and Times of Things

I am absolutely fascinated by the relationship people have with things. I am fascinated by the meaning and value humans add to otherwise meaningless objects. I've written about it before: Why do we keep what we do, discard what we decide we do not want? How do we use things to celebrate and make meaning in holidays? And long after we are gone, what patterns do our consumptive and domestic habits leave behind about our lifestyles and value systems?

This is probably part of the reason I am drawn to working in museums with objects that have been selected to be kept, preserved, valued as historical in some way, and chosen to represent people, moments, and eras past, present, future.

That's also why I wish I had thought of this first.

The concept, the hypothesis, and the execution is brilliant. Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker were apparently pondering the regular, conventional assumption, that what gives an object value is somehow determined by laws of utility, supply and demand, or "qualities intrinsic to the object -- e.g., craftsmanship or design." No, there are more powerful, less explicable forces at work behind the irrational behavior of humans (I myself just finished reading Predictably Irrationaland its author Dan Ariely would agree here) and why and what we value. So they created the Significant Objects project, and drafted a hypothesis: "that regardless of of the thing's aesthetic or utilitarian properties, an object's value can be increased by way of the narrative attached to it."

They sough to find more evidence of this link between ordinary objects and extraordinary meaning.

Glenn and Walker thrift-store shopped for one hundred items, spending a total of $128.74 Then they asked one hundred authors (most pretty unknown names) to write a story about an object, so they would end up with one hundred objects and one hundred stories to match. Then, they listed them for sale on eBay, with the story in the item description (and a disclaimer that this was, in fact, a fictitious story).

When all the items were sold, the grand total of what people forked over for otherwise meaningless objects: $3,612.51. For tchotchkes.

They compiled their whole project and process in a beautiful little book that I purchased immediately after hearing Rob Walker talk about their project on Marketplace. They refer to this as a literary and economic experiment. After conducting three series of the experiments, three hundred items given invented meaning and then sold to interested parties online, they compiled the best 100 stories and their conclusions and thoughts into this book. It's part short story fiction, part economic enigma, part "in-your-face, logical economic thinking."

The experimenters, shall we call them, came up with these categories of significance, to try and determine if these kinds of factors play a part in determining what people might value, and how much they will value it (in an actual monetary amount). The short answer is, it's complicated. The shorter answer is, No; these distinctions don't matter overtly. Neither did the author who had penned the tale.

Neither, really, did the object type, which had been split into these categories: Novelty Item, House & Table, Figurine, Decoration, Kitchenware, Toy, Kitsch, Tool, Promotional Item.

It is befuddling, mysterious, and glorious to browse through the items in this series, examine the item, read the story that accompanies it, and marvel at much, or how little, it went for in the end, on the internet auction block. Sometimes a fantastical, or intriguing tale would only garner $20 from a buyer; other times, stories I thought were a bit throw-away (compared to some) brought in a cool $100 or more. Each item was, by their own rules, purchased for less than $4 originally.

What's also interesting is how now, precisely by being featured in a project like this, objects that had no meaning at all, tchotchkes and trash at best, again have a value and shelf-life, because you are unlikely to ever spot a second of these random, old, forgotten things elsewhere in the world. Pairs, brothers, additional copies produced long ago are now likely to have been long trashed, destroyed, abandoned, forgotten.

It speaks highly of the project creators, Walker and Glenn, that these pieces were so well-chosen and curated to begin with. They limited themselves, for example, from including "mid-century-through-1980s pop culture ephemera," and consciously did not include any furniture, clothing, books, or other things that were deemed to obviously "object-like."

What an entirely enigmatic project. I am so jealous to have not thought of this experiment first.

I spent a whole semester reading and discussing and researching topics in material culture, learning about British tea culture, eighteenth century American clothing culture, white and black spaces on the plantation homestead, hand embroidered crafts made by women living in refugee camps, Puerto Ricans' meaning in their homes and spaces on abandoned plots in New York City, and meaning in punk rock clothing and attitude, among other things. I spent a semester thinking about and researching, asking questions about meaning in quilts, for my own final project. We talked of tchotchkes and trinkets and souvenirs from trips far and near. I should have been thinking more deeply about the stories, the ones we create, the ones we forget, the ones that are passed down to us, the ones we make from our own life experiences.

Valueless objects take up lots of space in our lives, even when we consciously resist such a phenomenon. We can be upset that this occurs, and try our best to live simply. I agree. But I also think it is just a source of too much intrigue and love, sadness and grief, too much human drama for us to ignore those little trinkets that survive and speak to moments passed. That is what we do in museums all the time, after all, use objects to represent was once was, what stories have come before us, what things happened here. Who lived, and what they owned while they habited this earth.

Click to see the rest of the post:

What language can tell us: reflections on dying words and meaning

Two things I love to talk about have collided: National Geographic has published in their July 2012 issue a stunning 33-page spread on the crisis small languages face in a world run by business, the Internet, and a demand for global citizens to all be able to communicate across political and cultural boundaries. On my favorite podcast, we've been discussing the many crises and endangered languages for years, and all the many facets of culture and identity that are threatened by the loss of these smaller languages. Let me first say, that is a truly large amount of printed space to dedicate to this topic. Add to this, the challenge photographer Lynn Johnson faced in trying to capture the story of three dying languages in the frame of her camera, in frozen, singular images. The whole thing is brilliant. Her photos absolutely succeed in telling a complicated story of words, meaning, and meaning lost as fewer people learn these fascinating, enigmatic words and phrases.

Russ Rymer, the author of the article, has perfectly introduced this complex piece of globalization to the regular public, and then highlights three specific languages under threat: Tuvan, spoken in the Russian Federation territory Republic of Tuva; Aka, spoken in the Arunachal Pradesh state of northeastern India; and Seri, spoken in Mexico by two remaining settlements along the Gulf of California.

SERI: [ Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiij? ]: Where is your placenta buried? Caption: This is how the Seris ask, Where are you from? Those who were born before hospital births know the exact spot where their afterbirth was placed in the ground, covered in sand and ash, and topped with rocks.What we can take away from this story are some of the larger questions involved in the phenomenon, because the answers are neither obvious nor easy. Yes, it is actually quite inconvenient to have over 7,000 languages spoken on this planet, but so much is lost culturally, deep-rooted perspectives and beliefs from tiny corners of the world are slipping away, as one language dies every 14 days (as its last speaker passes away). What it comes down to is reckoning with what will remain, and what will be folded in to the larger culture. For example, people who speak Aka might also speak Hindi or Bengali, which both have millions of speakers and are holding strong in the international boxing ring, but what elements of Aka culture will never be properly translated into Hindi? Rymer writes:

Increasingly, as linguists recognize the magnitude of the modern language die-off and rush to catalog and decipher the most vulnerable tongues, they are confronting underlying questions about languages' worth and utility. Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won't survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?

These are excellent, complicated questions that are brilliantly captured with actual words littered below each of Johnson's photographs. The perfection of this combination, word and definition alongside image, still astonishes me, days after first exploring this article. I keep coming back to the words. I'm having an experience with these words and images. Here is an example of the way the story plays out on the pages of the magazine:

The word accompanying this image is [tradzy]: a necklace of yellow stone beads. The Aka have more than 26 words to describe beads. Beyond being objects of adornment, beads are status symbols and currency. This toddler will get this necklace at her wedding.Not only is this a topic I already find important and fascinating, but here my favorite magazine has most exceptionally presented the real and complicated lives, stories, and meanings within threatened languages in a way that appeals to those outside the field of armchair linguistics. (Maybe, it will convert a few more to that pastime.)

One of the most important components of culture that language variation clues us into is the vast difference in worldview across linguistic borders, which widens across continents and geographic distances as well. It is something that first blew my mind as I was learning about other religions, and which continued to surprise me as I studied language as well (and is a reason I love both subjects so much).

Western civilizations, for example, have developed their cultural and mental timeline and calendars on the concept of time as linear, heading in one direction, ever forward. Hindu culture places time in a circle, curving round itself; this is why reincarnation makes much more sense within their concept of time than that of western culture and order. You're circling back on yourself, rather than moving ever onward into future time.

The Tuvan language featured in the article has its own notions of past and present that also highlight these basic, structural differences in world view:

Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience, revealing as mutable aspects of life we tend to think of as settled and universal, such as our experience of time, number, or color. In Tuva, for example, the past is always spoken of as ahead of one, and the future is behind one's back. "We could never say, I'm looking forward to doing something," a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, "I'm looking forward to the day before yesterday." It makes total sense if you think about of it in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn't it be in plain view?

These are the kinds of concepts and cultural traits that risk being forgotten. As anyone who spends time with words-- whether in their native tongue or another they have learned--readily knows, language is part and parcel to one's identity. Expressing emotions, dreaming, bonding with other humans all revolve around language. This is the kind of comfort and familiarity entire tribes have to lose as their language languishes against the bigger, tougher giants.

If Aka, or any language, is supplanted by a new one that's bigger and more universally useful, its death shakes the foundations of the tribe. "Aka is our identity," a villager told me one day. "Without it, we are the general public." But should the rest of the world mourn too? The question would not be an easy one to frame in Aka, which seems to lack a single term for 'world.'

Aka might suggest an answer, though, one embodied in the concept of mucrow--a regard for tradition, for long-standing knowledge, for what has come before, a conviction that the venerable and frail have something to teach the callow and strong that they would be lost without.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-conceived articles and photographic essays I've ever read in this magazine, whose journalism and photographs set the standard in the field.

These are a few of my favorite photo/word pairings from the story.

From the Tuvan langauge:

From the Aka language:

From the Seri language:

This doesn't even scratch the surface. Explore the online gallery and the print edition for more of these stunning pairs. Like this one. 

A few commandments of happiness

For writer Gretchen Rubin's happiness project, she started a blog as one of her work goals, to expand her identity as a writer and connect with a new community. On this blog, over the course of the project, she shared her own Twelve Commandments for Happiness, and many readers shared some of their own. A great list of them is in the book. I wanted to share. The ones in italics are my favorites.

  • Forget the past.
  • Do stuff.
  • Talk to strangers.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Stop the venting and complaining. 
  • Go outside.
  • Spread joy.
  • Never bother with people you hate.
  • Don't expect it to last forever. Everything ends and that's okay.
  • Stop buying useless crap.
  • Make mistakes.
  • Give thanks: for the ordinary and the extraordinary. 
  • Create something that wasn't there before. 
  • Notice the color purple.
  • Make footprints: "I was here."
  • Be silly. Be light.
  • Be the kind of woman I want my daughters to be.
  • Shit happens--count on it.
  • Friends are more important than sex.
  • Choose not to take things personally.
  • Be loving and love will find you.
  • Soak it in.
  • This too shall pass.
  • "Be still, and know that I am God."
  • Remember, everyone's doing their best all the time.
  • Expect a miracle.
  • I am already enough. 
  • Let it go, man.
  • Light a candle or STFU.
  • Recognize my ghosts.
  • What do I really, really, really want?
  • Help is everywhere.
  • What would I do if I weren't scared?
  • If you can't get out of it, get into it. 
  • Keep it simple.
  • Give without limits, give without expectations.
  • React to the situation.
  • Feel the danger (many dangers--saturated fats, drunk driving, not making deadlines, law school--don't feel dangerous).
  • Start where you are.
  • People give what they have to give.
  • Be specific about my needs.
  • Let go, let God.
  • If you're not now here, you're nowhere.
  • Play the hand I'm dealt.
  • Own less, love more.
  • One is too many; a hundred aren't enough. 
  • Nothing too much.
  • Only connect.
  • Be a haven.

On happiness, and pleasure in failure

From Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project:

One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened. Losing your job might be a blow to your self-esteem, but the fact that you lead your local alumni association gives you a comforting source of self-respect. Also, a new identity brings you into contact with new people and new experiences, which are also sources of happiness.

On enjoying your failures:

Pushing myself, I knew, would be a source of discomfort. It's a Secret of Adulthood: Happiness doesn't always make you feel happy. When I thought about why I was sometimes reluctant to push myself, I realized that it was because I was afraid of failure--but in order to have more success, I needed to be willing to accept more failure. I remembered the words of Robert Browning: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

To counteract this fear, I told myself, "I enjoy the fun of failure." It's fun to fail, I kept repeating. It's part of being ambitious; it's part of being creative. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly.

Taryn Simon, exploring bloodlines and stories that bind us, through photos

 

In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, in midtown Manhattan, we were near collapse after a morning exploring the Upper West Side and Central Park, then shopping around midtown. Then we went to the Modern Museum of Art. I felt it essential to visit at least one of the major, internationally-renowned museums New York City has to offer, even while we were resisting the traditional tourist visit to the City.

Taryn Simon, artist and photographer, has a knack for amazing titles. Her current show: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, I-XVIII. At some point as we neared delirium, we wandered into the photography section of the museum, tucked on one of the expansive floors, and found Taryn Simon's stunning exhibition of photographs. To be honest, the named intrigued me first, as names and titles nearly always do. A great name is the fastest way to get me interested. (I read Angela's Ashes in sixth grade--I know, right?--because I desperately wanted to know who Angela was, and what was her relation to the little grungy boy on the cover; no other reason.)

We found ourselves surrounded by austere faces, portraits of men, women, rabbits, sitting each by themselves, amid a series of people (and sometimes things) who are somehow related, whose lives and stories intersect by some grand or small event. There was something about "bloodlines," as after looking deeper at the panels and photographs, I was confused about the organization of the show and its larger meaning. I left intrigued deeply, wanting to spend more time pondering this series, these "chapters," later, but not wanting to buy the $125 exhibition book--which was the show in its entirety, amazing.

Hours later, I am in the hotel room taking a much-needed rest, and flipping through a Time magazine I'd brought with, when there is this bold headline: "There Will Be Bloodlines: Taryn Simon untangles the ties that bind."

I kid you not, I got goosebumps. If I had looked at this magazine a day earlier, I might have overlooked this name, skimmed the article at best. Here was this woman, and her explanation of this newest project, which was four years in the making, and took her to twenty-five countries.

Now I have a proper explanation of the project's theme and meaning:

The organizing principle for this project is what she calls bloodlines: all the living descendants, plus any living forebears, of a single man or woman who sets a story in motion.

And the reasoning, the messy ties and stories and variable havoc that occurs within these "bloodlines" is where her project becomes truly fascinating. It echoes what I see and know deeply: that family lines, genetics, and genealogy have little to do with  the way our lives turn out, have almost nothing to do with the events that shape our individual lives in the present.A simple concept, really; and this explains why the tribal man with ten wives, dozens of children, and many dozen grandchildren appears in a massive sequence. And also, why there is a man missing from his own story--a blank canvas appears instead; he was executed for war crimes after the end of WWII and Nazi Germany, but descendants appear after his spot, along with more missing people, via their empty canvases, as well as pieces of clothing that act in lieu of a person, who preferred not to share his or her face in association with this man. Meaning becomes clear.

Simone depicts bloodlines as flowing charts of small portraits--like a living periodic table of the elements. What resonates is the persistence, and finally the insufficiency, of ancestry and kinship as systems for making sense of unruly destinies. To show that blood lineage can be an extremely loopy line, she sought out unlikely subjects; one is a Lebanese man who claims to be reincarnated, so he pops up more than once in his own family history. "I was always looking for a surreal twist," she says, "something that would lead to a collapse of logic."

All the same, even the most outlandish chapters have their universal element. As Simon put it, "We're all the living dead, pieces of what came before." What she means is that we all carry the DNA of our forebears; there ghostly current pulses through us. The intricate machinery of her project is designed to show that blood ties are a weak line of defense against the blows administered by history, politics, or sheer unlucky circumstances. [italics my own.]

Yes. This entire work is more stunningly magnificent than I ever could have imagined, aligning greatly with my own theories on this whole world and what happens to us during our time here.

TV Show: on urban white girls in 2012

Last night I finally began watching a show I'd been reading about, and to be quite honest, sounded just like something made for me, whose characters I might love. Girls, on HBO, which premiered in April.

I love the characters. They are confused, they have both aim and absolutely no aim, they are figuring out men, career, life. I was crying laughing as we breezed through the first three episodes. Lena Dunham, creator, writer, and one of the stars of the show, is a 25-year-old, and she has captured perfectly many of the topics and issues of exactly this--my--generation. Out of college, mediocre economy and job market, living in the city... and from there, the story grows. The hilarious discourse on exactly life right now hit so many touchstones for me.

Hannah makes a ton of bad decisions, but man, how I love her already. She unabashedly tells her parents she thinks she is "the voice of her generation," and asks them to keep giving her money so that she can determinedly finish her memoir. "Or at least a voice of a generation," she adds. She also eats a cupcake in the bathtub (which I have been known to do), has the most spectacular tattoos, is perfectly not skinny, and has existential freak-outs about HIV/AIDS that are absolutely ridiculous and hilarious.

Today Lena Dunham talked about the show, and its discourse on twenty-somethings and all the mess of life, with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Terry Gross on why Girls has been striking a nerve with many:

I think women in particular are so hungry for a series or a movie, or movies, about young women who are kind of feminist--whether they describe themselves that way or not--and aren't just all about clothes and engagement rings, and who are trying to  really figure out who they are where they fit in in the world.

Full disclosure -- this is an HBO show. Be prepared for the sex scenes. A la Games of Thrones...

On my year of living alone

For one year, which was the maximum amount of time my (then-more-limited) budget could handle it, I lived alone. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my cat, and I adored it.

The New York Times reported on the "freedom, and perils, of living alone" a few months ago, and spoke to many of the great and terrible aspects of this less-rare decadence of the modern age.

IF there is any doubt that we’re living in the age of the individual, a look at the housing data confirms it. For millenniums, people have huddled together, in caves, in mud huts, in split-levels and Cape Cods. But these days, 1 in every 4 American households is occupied by someone living alone; in Manhattan, mythic land of the singleton, the number is nearly 1 in 2.

I don't live in Manhattan, and I actually do not know very many people who have spent time living alone, with not one other human soul. There are appealing delights in the entire set-up, that I appreciate even more so now that I no longer have them. If I happen to have a messy week, it bothers no one except myself; so only when I am annoyed by the dished left on the counter do I have to do anything about them. (Being messy: most decadent of behavior.) You grow quickly fond of walking around completely naked as you do things in the mornings or evenings. (Truly.) There is quiet when you want it, and loud also when you want it. There is always a dance floor in your living room, with an audience of one (the cat, who is not in the least judgmental of your moves) and no one will barge in on your party-of-one. Push the couch out of the way if it's getting really serious. Solitude when you need it, a space to recharge, foster creativity, watch any damn thing you want to. No one's opinion matters here except your own. We all need tiny spaces  where this is what dictates the way of things; even if, obviously for many, that space is not your own, magnificent single-occupancy apartment.

Because that is also where the peril lies. "The single-occupant home can be a breeding ground for eccentricities," the NYT reports, to no one's surprise or shock. Think of, "Kramer on 'Seinfeld,' washing vegetables in the shower or deciding, on a whim, to ditch his furniture in favor of 'levels.'" Because it offends no one else!

One woman, Amy Kennedy, featured in the article readily admits that she can see, over the six years she has lived alone in North Carolina, that she has gotten "quirkier and quirkier." I can absolutely see how this would happen. Amy:

“The entire apartment is your room,” Ms. Kennedy said, by way of explanation. “If I leave a bra on the kitchen table, I don’t think much about it.”

Living alone breeds very strange wardrobe decisions, as others in article point out, and to which I can readily attest. Weird, embarrassing stretchy pants and third-day greasy hair? No one's there to see. Other usual suspect habits? Leaving the bathroom door open. Talking to yourself. And eating strange versions of "recipes"--what I call "single-people food"--inventions that arise out of the need to eat without the urge to prepare anything too time-consuming or elaborate for a party of one. Cereal. A can of black beans mixed in with some other can of soup. Expensive cheese, by itself. Cereal. Something that is usually a side-dish but I choose to make the whole meal. And so on.

What emerges from this much time spent alone?

What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

This can have good and bad consequences, depending on how well you handle the quirks that arise. One of the perils the article mentions is the work of resocialization when you do eventually cohabitate. As a lifelong introvert, I'm quite skilled in manuvering myself within a social world without neglecting the need for quiet, solitary space.  I lived naturally alone, just as I live quite naturally and happily with others. But it was such a lovely year, one I cherish.What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

For me it was such a pleasure (albeit, too expensive). It wasn't that all my time was spent alone. But I am a person who cherishes, relishes, in time I have to myself, and I continue to relish evenings or mornings or afternoons of solitude, time to devote to a skill, a project, a paper, a book, an exercise machine (less often), a cup of coffee, a bookstore outing, a quiet meal, a movie alone, a design idea, a blog post, research, a recipe, a cat snugglefest, a dance party for one. Sometimes, I even clean.

 

Community. My community.

Atlanta

Tonight Alicia Philipp came to my nonprofits class to speak to us about her thirty-five years working as the President of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Community foundations are organizations where donors who want to donate large sums of money, but don't have $25 million required to start an individual foundation in their name, can place their money in order to help a community they are invested in, or care about immensely. She is currently working on a project to fund a for-profit co-op owned by workers living in an inner-city area who will grow hydroponic lettuce to sell to large institutions like Emory University; they needed to raise $1 million this year to start by January 2013. She spoke with six individuals and among those SIX people, raised $800,000 of it. She has been doing incredible things like this in Atlanta and the 26 counties that make up its Metro area since she became the Foundations' president at age 23. 

Someone asked her why she'd chosen to stay in Atlanta for thirty-five years, and working with the CFGA. Why had she never gone elsewhere?

Well, certainly the offers were there over the years, she said. And there were times she really felt like she needed a change. But she would get an offer and then, an extraordinary new project or opportunity would arise with the Foundation here in Atlanta, and she would know immediately she needed to be in Atlanta to make it happen, to help it succeed. She understood after these moments that it wasn't about working for a Community Foundation anywhere, it was about working for the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. It was about this place, these people, this city.

Her words were hitting my straight through the heart. I was near tears (burning throat, watery eyes) several times, as the meaning of what she was saying sunk in. Yes. Atlanta. I want to be here and be a part of this community. I am not ready to leave it behind.  I am invested here.

Is this what it feels like to be vested in a place? To care dearly about its citizens, to wish to see it grow, innovate, improve? To want to make it a better place? Not that I don't want everywhere to be improving, but I have this deeper feeling that I really want to be a part of Atlanta's improvements, history, community.

I remember going to interviews to receive scholarships in high school, and the adult panel members would ask these questions about what I was going to do in college, in life, in career, that would improve Dublin, Georgia, and did I plan on returning to the city after school. I was completely honest -- "nope!" -- and received no scholarships.

But now I see what they were trying to do, for their community. Invest in its future, help it thrive.

Here I am, after six years in Atlanta; I've recently made a commitment to a lease that will keep me here post-graduation, and I could not be more excited about staying here. Alicia's words felt like a giant prophecy, or a reaffirmation I suppose, a reminder that there is a reason I am excited to be here. It is OK, in fact exciting, to reach this point and understand that I care about one particular place.

After all, haven't I been learning about playing with the notion of "place" for over two years in graduate school? One of the themes that keeps reappearing in my own work in public history is that Place plays its own role in the past, present, and future; it is a character all its own, in the human narrative. A place holds special meaning for the people "from" there; and I feel "from" Atlanta. I really do. (And that's quite weird to say, to feel. Michigan-Georgia hybrid with 13 addresses under my belt in 24 years.)

Yes, I see. It is about place. I know the history here. I want to work here and be a part of the community that includes this amazing woman who has dedicated her life to this urban space. To this city I am part of, where I am staying.

I love Atlanta. I love that it's a refuge of blue in a red state (or at least a refuge of dark, dark purple). I love that it's known in the culinary world as a city of great burgers. I love that the NAMES Project Foundation and AIDS Memorial Quilt is here, relocated from San Francisco. I love that we have Emory University, where the Dali Lama is an honorary professor. I love that we have an urban National Park, where the park ranges wear their official park ranger outfits and green hats, but walk on the city streets where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up. I love driving on I-285 to work in the morning and watching the Delta planes land right over my head on the runway/highway bridge. I love my scrappy public school, Georgia State. I love that they're building the National Center for Civil and Human Rights next to the World of Coca-Cola, which will be a forum (and living museum) on all things important in modern, international civil rights. I love my quilt and fabric shops. I love that I've found a converted factory space to live right in the center of this place that is distinct, in a city that has arguably cookie-cutter apartments. I love that we have one of the three permanent StoryCorps booths in the whole country--the others are in NYC and San Francisco. We have the Centers for Disease Control and the only CDC museum in the whole country.

Atlanta is my home, and it matters. How could I leave it now, just when I can begin to contribute the most to it? Alicia reminded me that's OK, and it is important, even, to care about a place in the world enough to stay long enough to make a difference. This is a recent realization for me, truly new. Atlanta is my community. There are things I want and need to do here. I'm not done yet--I've barely begun.

Genealogy and history: love & hate

My hate story

Recently I was talking about the main duties of the student archives technician at the National Archives, and it lead me into a tangent about perceptions of archives and the public’s idea that digitization is some panacea for records management, and an easy fix.

What I didn’t get to are my other duties at work. Besides holdings maintenance projects (the ones that started the tangent on the sheer number of materials we have), I also work in the public areas, assisting the public and researchers, and complete research requests for patrons who are off-site but need help. The first of these assignments takes up half of every workday, as it is the job of the students to assist the public so that the full-time archivists can get down to doing the projects and work they are here to do. Not that their duties don’t also revolve around aiding researchers and the public, but if someone has to sit in the textual research room while a researcher is here and she must not leave the room, well, that limits the amount of other activities that she can complete while essentially on lock-down. In this case, right now, I am in the text room supervising a researcher for the Corps of Engineers, and so I cannot leave the room; it allows for time to write journals reflecting on my duties here, for instance. Sometimes, if the timing is right, we can bring a project into the text room and work on it while we’re trapped in here.

The other room is the research room, and that’s the general public area, the one where you do not need a researcher card to enter, and pretty much anyone who can get past the security guards and metal detectors is allowed in there. It means we are safe from criminals, but we are not safe from idiots and crazy people, and we are especially not safe from… genealogists. I am not the first person to write (no, complain) about genealogists as the annoying part of the duties of a student employee here at the Archives.

Not to sound snooty, but historians have a hierarchy, and genealogists are basically at the bottom, maybe even below the base marker. Family history is basically a nonstarter for most of us working here; it just doesn’t matter too much. We get a tiny thrill maybe the first time we see an ancestor’s draft card. That was the first thing I researched when I started working here, because they are commonly requested, and so I used it as a learning experience in pulling WWI draft cards. I found Perley W. Grubb, scanned his card, and refiled him with rest of the Wisconsin draftees. But where my family was positioned in history does not dictate either my feelings about history, nor the scope or basis of my research.

The problem is, most people’s families did really nothing much that would put them anywhere in the historical records. We have federal records here, and most people go their whole lives never really being really involved in federal functions. You fill out your census every ten years—that’s the main thing. Some people have military records—that’s another biggie. And if your ancestors immigrated or filed for a passport, they would also have filed federal records. But even then, in the case of immigration, they would have had to file their petition for naturalization in a federal court, and before 1907, it wasn’t required that they file them in federal court. So anyone who came to the United States in the nineteenth century could file in any level of court—county, state, federal, random Podunk local courthouse. And that’s if they naturalized at all; they might have remained nationals of their birth country.

We have research tools here for people to begin to find records their ancestors more commonly filed—vital records of birth, marriage, and death. Those are records filed with the state, and so are most often held by either the state’s historical archives or the vital records office—depending on how old they are and varying widely by state. People often get frustrated that before the twentieth century (and even in that one, in many cases) births were not recorded officially. If their great-grandfather’s birth was recorded on the inside of some Bible somewhere, I can’t help them.

It’s not to say that I wholly dismiss genealogy. I understand regular people’s need to see themselves in the past in order to make it meaningful for them. Genealogy is a significant historical experience for many people in today’s digitization-happy world. Part of public history is finding a way to make the past matter to an individual; this means including genealogy on the totem pole, for what value it does offer to a public craving connection. Historians whose focuses lie in larger themes, events, historical trends, and connections—oftentimes professional historians and scholars—don’t focus on minutiae of particular individuals unless they did do something significant or relevant to the subject of their study. Whereas genealogists go looking for a particular person to see if he might have done anything worth recording, historians find the things that were worth recording and then find out more about the people who did them. They start from different points, and work in opposite directions.

I understand though, that a large portion of the public we serve is here to do just that, to find their family. So I work in the research room, patiently helping octogenarians use the printers and computers, and try my best to let them do their own research even when it means teaching them how to move backward and forward on an internet page. (Yes, really.) We don’t do the research for them, we give them tools, indexes, direction on where to begin and what kinds of records will serve their needs best, and then we let them loose.

Once you’ve heard about Great Aunt Gertrude once, you’ve heard about her a hundred times. I cannot tell you how boring it is to hear someone rattle off names in a complicated web, as if I am going to remember or care how their whole family tree is organized. Funny anecdotes to them are a dime-a-dozen to me; but I try not to let my eyes glaze over, and always listen politely for as long as seems normal before bowing out and into my little glass room to hide (which doesn’t work so well in a glass room). Also fun: I can no longer count on two hands the number of people who’ve told me they are related to someone who came over on the Mayflower. This comment is my single biggest pet peeve of working in the research room, bar none. First of all, it’s probably not true; there are so many generations to prove unequivocally. (And there were not that many to survive, if you recall.) Secondly, it truly makes no difference to me whether your long-long-ago ancestors happened to live, even if it was in a colony that is super-famous and iconic in American history. You’d be more interesting to me if YOU have been on the Mayflower. Let’s talk about that!

The most frustrating thing about working with genealogists is when they get angry, upset, or even cry over not being able to find much about those farther back in their family tree. I had one lady in tears at 4:45 one afternoon, because an ancestor she had been researching twenty-five years was still eluding her. He was drafted from Michigan into the Union army during the Civil War, and then she knew that the family received record that he died. She was distraught that there was no record of anything in between. Ma’am, I wanted to say, what the heck else would he have filed with anyone? He was at war. Unless he wrote some diary that somehow made it back into the arms of his family after the war, which is highly, crazily doubtful, there would be nothing else. He fought in a war and he died. That corner of the tree is complete. I am sorry if that is unsatisfying. In my experience, genealogy is highly unsatisfying, because it is so unlikely that your ancestors left much of a paper trail.

We make more of a paper trail these days, but it’s technically an electronic trail. Maybe in one hundred years, my Amazon Wishlist will provide a descendent of mine with endless insight into what I was like. They will also be able to read my Twitter feed, which I do think is very interesting to ponder. I so wish I could read the Twitter feed of Young John Allen, or those sent among the members of a nineteenth century quilting group. But until some of those things become “history,” for now we have the United States census, where you can see interesting things like whether or not your ancestors spoke English and were or were not the head of the household. (Am I coming across here as scathingly sarcastic? I do hope so.)

On babies

The average age of an American woman when she has her first child is 24.9. I am 24.

I am in the midst of many women--my age, younger, older, all of us in our twenties--who have had children already, or are having them soon, or are planning, or coping with issues, illnesses, miscarriages, fertility questions, and anywhere in between. But, babies. It is a hot topic, to say the least, and one I am a part of even though I fall into none of the above listed categories.

One of my grad school friends in due in September, and though she has only told family (and a former employer out of necessity), she told me about it very early on, and I have happily kept her secret and excitedly shared in her joy as she prepares. She and her husband have a very pragmatic perspective, and she is an amazingly honest and straightforward person. (Example: When she told be about her pregnancy, she opened with "I'm knocked up!")

"Well," she explained to me, "we want a kid but we're young and broke. But then we figured, we'll probably be broke again once we have the kid, so we might as well just have a baby and continue to be broke and happy." I am incredibly excited for her, and she is already so beautiful, she is going to be the most drop-dead stunning pregnant lady as she begins to show. I am almost done with my gift for her, a baby quilt whose pattern I made up, using some things that inspired me and working in improvisational piecing. My second effort in modern quilting. I have adored thinking about her and her husband and new baby while planning and stitching.

But I have none of those urges myself. Honestly, not one lick. The main reason I can come up with for having a child now is that I'm pretty sure my Dad is well-past-due to be a grandfather. He is at that old-man-at-the-table-over-who's-goo-gooing-to-your-baby phase, at age 61, and I know he would adore a grandchild. By the way, that's not a good enough reason. And my three brothers are probably closer to becoming gay and adopting a baby than they are to having one with a lady. (Sorry, Dad. You'll have to wait a bit longer.)

Actually, I feel no great sadness at the thought of never becoming pregnant or giving birth. This sounds extreme, and I know someone will read this and think, but Jessie, you just feel that way now, think what you'd be missing, you have no idea. I am fine with you thinking this, and even telling me. I can't say how I'll feel in five or ten years. I genuinely do want children, I know someday I will be ready to take on that responsibility, and raise some precious beings to grow into thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent, curious human adults. I love imagining them, and I often think about them. This is the silly, girly truth. But I also genuinely do not feel they need to come from my uterus. This is hard to explain, I feel like it needs more sentences than the one. But there are none. It just doesn't matter to me at all how they came into this earth, just that I am allowed to love him or her, and raise them.

I do think about it, often, surrounded by friends who consciously, purposely get pregnant (yes, we're at that age it seems), about whether or not I'd feel sad, like I'd missed something excellent. Surely, it is an experience I will have missed. But there are an infinite amount of experiences I will miss during my life as well, like being able to see all the places I desire to see, learn the languages, fluently, I wish I could speak. Write every single book I know I have in me. Help all the people I wish and long to help. Work for many of the organizations and places I love and admire so much. Motherhood is something I know I cannot miss, am called to experience. But I also feel, very strongly--almost to a foolish extent--that I really, really, must adopt my children. I feel it deeply, in my bones, and I think it shakes off any fear or concern I might have otherwise had over maybe missing pregnancy, or a biological child.

I've been engrossed, in these last few months, in the lives of families who've built themselves through adoption. Mothers who've battled infertility, been through endless IVF treatments, countless tears, serious conversations, and sad nights. Other mothers who've known from the start of their families that they wanted to adopt. Some with only one child, adopted; others with several adopted kids; and others with biological and adopted kids together. And what I've witnessed, truly seen in their lives and their stories, is that the love is the same. They are raising American kids in a complicated world, and that their daughters (and sons) are Chinese American is only benefitting--increasing the joy of--their experience as a family. Women have cried as they've explained the love they have for their adopted daughter or daughters. I want this. This is what I dream about when I daydream about my future kids.

The paper pregnancy, as it's called, is tiring, comprehensive, painful, scary, intimidating. It's all kinds of emotional things to the people who go through it. And it often takes longer than nine months. And the joyful day when they receive the photo of their child, and mull over their beauty as they head out for some wine and dinner to celebrate, has been recounted to me more than a dozen times already. They talk about how much work it all is, and how sure they have to be that they want to become parents before anyone signs off on their dossier. Oh, bring it on, I think. I know how much I want kids. This is honestly what is going through my head when I hear the tales of social workers and county clerks and government officials and notaries public. And those moments, in China, when they meet their children, are my favorite. How extraordinary that you walk into a room and suddenly, you are a parent. I know I want children, absolutely and unwaveringly, and I know I want to go through all this. It is exhilarating to think about beginning this whole process.

I know I want kids. I know the way I want to have them is not the "normal" way. I've also explored more about myself, through the work on my graduate capstone project, and how I feel about pregnancy, children, motherhood, infertility, childrearing practices and theories. We're each individuals on this planet, with our own approaches and theories on every thing we do. And for my kids, they will have lives beyond the years they spend with me, and lives before I will have known them, too. My children will not be mine to "have," but will be little bundles of potential--good and bad, yes--for me to explore the world with, once we meet.

I love imagining where and when we will meet one another. Who will those little people be? Not of my blood, but of my heart.

My life is richer, simply because I asked

Or: An oral history project, incredible families, much talk on adoption, China, love, and family, and how I found a title for this project

Last January, I was struck with an idea for a project. I had read a book about a generation of Chinese girls who had been adopted into families worldwide, with a huge number of them becoming part of American families. (I wrote about it too.) Tens of thousands of these girls are growing up Chinese-American, in predominantly upper-middle class families, and they have a distinct perspective on the world, and their spot in it.

 

That Americans have been adopting from Asia is not new information to most people; American families with an adopted Chinese (or more generally Asian--Korean, Vietnamese) child is more and more common in the general public. On the sitcom Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell adopted their daughter Lily from Vietnam, and that diversity is one of the mainstays of the "modern" aspect of the family composition on the show. In your own community, at the grocery store or Target, multicultural families are an ever more common site within the larger populace.

 

What I realized--in one of those sudden ideas that come to mind only when a combination of other triggers intersect perfectly--is that there is an important historical story here, and that I could help to tell it, begin to collect it, with the tools I have. I had been thinking a lot about identity, and the concept of "roots," genealogy, and biology, and thinking about how much, how deeply, it doesn't matter in the end. I had been thinking a lot about how much I want to adopt in my own life. And I had been thinking about the group of people--oftentimes members of Families with Children from China (FCC)--who is here, connected, who live this story every day: the families. Also being a public radio addict, I love podcasts and the new media we have to share stories and collect and share history, and decided the internet combined with an audio format would be the perfect way to tell this story.

 

Over the course of a few months in early 2011, I wielded in and narrowed my enormous original scope, and decided on what would become the final capstone project for my master's in public history.

 

I would collect oral histories of families who had adopted children from China (mostly girls, but a few boys as well), who live in the Metro Atlanta area. They will be delivered in an online format, much like a podcast, and often in small series that connect the stories of various families to each other.

 

I wrote a paper to end the semester, with grand ideas, plans, and notions of this project. Then in the fall, I had to begin to deliver on my many (many) promises. An important thing to point out is that I knew not one singular person in the Atlanta community who had adopted a child from China. I am not in the age demographic of adoptive parents, and I am not even married. Nor do I have kids. I spend a lot of my time at work and at school. So I started cold-calling people, with a very strange request, indeed, when they did call me back or answer my unknown number: "Yes, hi, I am a graduate student at Georgia State, and I am working on a project about families who have adopted children from China. If you are interested, could I explain a little bit about what I am doing?"

 

Strangely, I only felt really nervous the very first time I did a dialing session. That first, painful, jump into the icy water. Turns out, the water was not cold at all. A few returned my calls or answered, and connected me with people who were either more directly involved, or spoke to me themselves. In each case that I have spoken with a mom, dad, or family as a group, I have been allowed a little more access into their lives, and they have shared my project with their friends, people also connected through FCC--the Atlanta chapter and beyond. It has been extraordinary.

 

What began as a few contacts in the fall has snowballed in 2012. I have been graciously welcomed into homes, invited to hear personal tales of how these families became what they are--decisions about family, ethnicity, fertility, biological children, and all other manner of real, complex lives.

 

I ate Chinese food to celebrate Chinese New Year with one very active playgroup, the kids averaging about six to ten years old, and it was a rowdy, wonderful evening, meeting parents and further discussing and explaining this project and my goals.

 

I watched a rehearsal performance of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which has become a haven and passion for a number of adopted Chinese girls over the years, many of whom continue to dance into high school and college.

 

I was invited to a monthly book club begun by mothers of adopted Chinese girls and boys, who found there was a need to read the literature (spanning many topics) on kids, adoption, China, parenting, and a number of issues within these topics, and that reading them together was more meaningful. I have begun attending them, and the most striking note I took away from my first session was that there are issues of confidence, perception from outsiders, and even simple semantics that arise in every adoptive mothers' mind, and that the support from small groups like this one is indispensable for these women. It was so lovely to sit and discuss their most recent selection, Lucky Girl, with them--quite frankly, most I did was listen.

 

I listened to one mother console another on the fear that she, who had never had children biologically, somehow loved her daughter in a less, or different, way than the mother who had two biological boys before adopting her Chinese daughter. This second mother listened earnestly, and then vehemently countered that, having both, she promises there is not one thing different in the love for each of her three children, biological or adopted. She repeats this for emphasis, staring her friend straight in the eye. She is brought to tears when talking about it further.

 

It is moving. There are many times I am near tears in working on this project. The stories, the love, the shared experiences are so moving. I am up to my ears in adoption stories, and pictures of young, growing, and grown-up families; it only makes my conviction and desire to adopt stronger, if that was possible.

 

I was invited by two girls, ages 8 and 9, to watch the videos their older sister (film-producer earning her master's at Columbia, might I add) made of their respective adoptions, after I had finished interviewing their parents. It was the first time in the course of this work that I watched, in moving picture, the moment when a little two-year-old met her parents and sisters. It was remarkable, joyous, and scary, and sad all at once--many in that room captured on film feeling so many varieties of emotions all at once. It is a moment not everyone would perhaps want to share with me; I was honored, yet again, by their gracious invitation into the lives of others.

 

Is it that adoptive families tend to be willing to share, because they are used to being the ones in the room who created their family in a manner somewhat different from "normal"? I don't know the reasons, but I am grateful for their positive responses to this project, the excitement some have expressed, and the thanks others have shared. We all recognize that these are stories worth telling, collecting, connecting, sharing. I think they are especially rich in the aural format, voices captured in this moment in the lives of these families. The little girls, little boys, teenagers I have spoken to--those voices are being saved, and their notions of themselves are now recorded, as documentation that this is how they felt in 2012, about their spot in this wide world. I giggle, I cry, I am in awe as I listen back to the words and thoughts that I have collected. How far I have brought this, into fruition, into something quite extraordinary--something I wanted but that, if I'm being honest, seemed impossibly large to attempt.

 

I have been invited into homes, back into homes, met kids, siblings, parents, friends, interviewed many of them. I've met with people without the voice recorder on as many occasions, listening and talking and proving that I can be trusted with their family's history.

 

I was most recently offered two beautiful, hardcover books that have been compiled from families' personal photographs ad writings, on the China adoption experience. The collection is from photo collections and families across the United States, who all have this same experience in common. The first of the books was compiled and designed in the basement of the family I most recently interviewed, and they insisted they had "too many copies" lying around, so gave me one of each of these two books. They are cherished additions to the resources I have already compiled as I entered this world to begin work on this project. From one, I found the inspiration to finally settle on a title:

A Thousand Ways Richer:

The China adoption experience in Atlanta, An Oral History

 

I have been shown unbelievable support, consideration, and openness as I have thus far explored the China adoption community in Atlanta. The most striking discovery has been confirmed and reaffirmed by nearly every mother or father I speak to: the adoption of their daughter, son, or multiple children has brought them more than just a child--their lives have been enriched in a thousand ways they could not have imagined before. A child, yes. Also, culture, dance, food, language, history. Also, activity, sports, small businesses, and an entire community of support, best friends, love, play groups. Some who share this initial experience go on to become lifelong friends. One man's Chinese daughter has already made him reconsider his perception on race, and interracial marriage--and she's only eight.

 

I will explore many of these facets in the forthcoming website, where I post the stories and some of the audio. But the quick thesis to this thing, what has inspired the title, is a combination of the thousands of ways life is changed by adoption, and the countless ways I am also richer for knowing these incredible women, men, daughters, and sons. The ways my life has been enriched are too numerous to count, and I would have missed every single one of them if I had shied away from doing this, in favor of something easier, smaller, with people I already knew. It has been exhilarating to know what I am capable of, if I just pick up the phone and ask.

Being Yi Jie Xie

"Yi Jie Xie, how do you keep your white skirt so white?" For some reason, I have never forgotten this sentence, uttered to me on a hot summer day in Yangzhou, after an afternoon watching Chinese students play table tennis against American students with quite sub-par abilities. We were walking back to our own dorms, I was with a few other Americans who were in the same study abroad program. We had spent so much time together in class, learning about one another in the context of China, that we felt more comfortable calling each other by the Chinese names we had adopted.

It seems so far away now, my summer as Yi Jie Xie. I can't recall the names of the other six students who took on Chinese nomenclature with me; things like Facebook have ensured I know them best now by their given, English names. But I still adore my Chinese name, and the months, weeks, days I spent introducing myself with it. I also did wear skirts almost exclusively, and so that is also emblematic of the Chinese summer heat, of wearing the same few outfits and hanging them to dry so many times that by the end they had none of their original shape or structure. Not that these items needed much in the first place.

By the second month of being there, you just sort of sink into China. All the jitters, counting the days, complaining of heat, squatter-bathroom situations--they all become mundane, part of life, and you relax. Six of us stayed for the full two months, and you could tell us apart from the five newbies; they had all the nerves and questions and panic and dietary questions we had had four weeks earlier.

I was Yi Jie Xie, very tall and blonde girl who wore skirts. I had sunk in. I knew which drinks and snacks and brands of bread I liked best from the market on campus. I knew where to buy the best bananas for breakfast. I had my canteen for my morning jasmine tea, and I never really brushed my hair. I had discovered John Mayer's album Continuum, which lullabyed me through long nights on a Chinese mattress. I talked to my family once a week on the phone. I learned how to ask in Mandarin when the Internet repairman would be arriving. Once, I was out late after dinner with my roommate, and I had to pee so bad, I went over by an old demolished building site and did my business behind the remnants of a wall.

Recently, I finished reading a book written by a Chinese American woman who was adopted from Taiwan by American parents in 1972, and in adulthood, she went back and began a relationship with members of her birth family. What struck me most about her six sisters was their penchant for changing their names. Several of them had had at least two Chinese names, legally changed time and again, and an English name as well.

It always seemed so cool when I met other students, my counterparts, who had taken on English names, as they could pick anything that sounded pretty or cool or modern or traditional or meaningful to them. Janet, Rose, May--things like this. Simple, and also often not set in stone. It struck me that this is often how I feel, and wish I could express, in my own name. Can't I be more Chinese, and just switch my name as it feels right? I'm afraid there's far too much legal and bureaucratic attachment to my name here. My school, my work, online names, paychecks, social security, passport, taxes... eek. How does anyone change their name in this age? And then there's the question, what would I even change it to? I like Jess, Jessica, and I especially like Claire, my middle name, even if I love many other names that are not mine. I wish sometimes I would have gone by my middle name. But many people love and know me as Jessie. I like that a lot too. There are names I love so much, but I cannot imagine selecting one of them, a "best," to somehow become mine. I could not. But I really like the idea of flitting through life as several people. It is perhaps so intriguing because it seems so impossible in 2012.

But I also love that I spent a summer as someone else who is the same as well, as Yi Jie Xie. That's what my friends knew me by. In China. I had another name entirely. How amazing is that?

A day in Colmar [October 2005]

Colmar, France is one of the most amazing and charming little cities I've ever been to. I was a freshly-minted eighteen-year-old, and it was my first stint outside the United States. It was a liberating day for me, when we visited this French town on the German border, because I broke away from the group after more indecision mired any plans from forming, annoyed that we were all indecisive and trying to impress one another--the French teenagers who were our hosts and the American teenagers that composed my group.

We were passing this amazing shoe store, with boots in the window in colors I'd never seen in the U.S., and everyone bowled right past it--so I ducked in, hid, and tried on some ridiculous shoes I would never have bought but loved: orange and brown leather, hitting mid-calf, laced all the way up. These make me smile now, the price tag asking for hundreds of Euro and my youthful excitement at their outrageous appearance. I would have been brave enough to wear them back home, though they would be added to the list of strange and unusual things Jessie Edens wore in high school. I was the one who had made a skirt out of my dad's old army camouflage pants. (I still own this skirt, cannot give it up.) Maybe these orange and brown boots would have looked crazy and cool with the skirt. Probably not. The point was, I was sitting in a shoe store, in a foreign country where I could barely communicate with the saleslady, and I was beyond smitten with my position on the earth right then.

Alone, exploring, free, smiling, in a shoe store, with a few hours to kill.

The first thing I did once I headed out of the shop was follow a map back to the meeting place we had established for later that afternoon. It would be no good to lose track of myself and then be late getting back to everyone--when doing little excursions on my own, it would be foolhardy indeed to lose the right to my time exploring alone. I wanted, needed, to show everyone, especially the adults guiding us, that I was capable of handling myself and that they could trust me to go it alone. Adults had a habit of not believing I could do this.

A year earlier, on a trip with my church youth choir, I had left the hotel in Philadelphia early on our last morning there, because I was bound and determined to visit the steps that Rocky runs up--the iconic steps of the fists in the air and grey pantsuit moment of Rocky. The way events had played out, some of our group had been able to visit them while I had to be doing something with another group. I was royally annoyed and ready to be defiant. When I returned to the bus (in time for departure, mind you) the adults were mad, and I relished it. I was not a bad kid, and especially disliked being treated like an incapable human, so I really enjoyed making everyone huffy with concern. "What would your parents do if we told them?" was their main argument to me. My dad would have done exactly the same thing, I responded. You know what? My mom absolutely would have done the same, too. We're not a family to have much concern for "the plan" that everyone has established.

Anyway, if people are all being group-minded and deciding things en masse, I tend to want to just wander without them. I don't have to do anything grand. It's the small things that are grand.

I wandered. I bought a postcard whose words still inspire me today, near my desk. I bought ice cream. I asked a man on the street what time it was, in French. I kept hearing water running, flowing, and finally found that it was running alongside a main rue, right between the buildings and homes and the road itself. It came out of nowhere and truly surprised and delighted me. I stepped in dog poop right along that tiny urban river. It is a testament to how happy I was that this didn't even phase me. (At least I hadn't been wearing brand new lace-up brown-and-orange leather boots.)

I found a small little restaurant, boldly went inside and ordered an "American cheeseburger" and a beer. At 18, I triumphantly drank my first beer, freezing cold in a tall glass, because it was legal and I could. The men running the place inquired whether I was allemande-- German. Je suis American, I stumbled around the language, even if the statement was simple. They understood. I wonder if my foolish, giddy grin was obvious?

That afternoon, I returned early to the park area where we were to meet, and discovered that our bus driver was an artiste during his down time driving tourists around--he loved Dali. He let me on the bus so I could grab my notebook and wax poetic about my day alone in Colmar.

Colmar has stayed with me. It charmed me more than Paris, probably because I wasn't too scared to wander it alone and discover a bit more about it in a half-day's time. It was just the right amount of pure, utter joy. Little things.