Dispatch from the Edge of a Recession: Hit Me When I'm Up

After eleven weeks out of the workforce, I started a job this week and got slammed with a $100-boot on my car (for the first time in my life) all at once. Way to get hit when you're (almost) up. On the way up, we'll say. The most painful part of this incident: I was parked for about 8 minutes to get a $1 sub sandwich. I haven't received a paycheck in eleven weeks, have been barely hanging on, relying heavily on my credit card to make end's meet. Then I get my measly weekly unemployment check the same day I park in the spot that gets me a $100 boot. (I actually didn't even apply for unemployment until about three weeks ago, didn't even realize I could get money to help me during this phase. Man, it would have helped the whole time... but oh well.)

I'm rationalizing the sickening amount of wasted money by not getting a few other things. I've lost some weight since I've started running, and the actual width part of my bras is too loose. I really need new bras, to be perfectly honest; they're already a old. Instead, I've taken them in, with some unprofessional-looking, but very effective seams on both sides of the clasps at the back. I was going to get a desperately-needed haircut--my bangs are so long their not bangs anymore--but I'll keep the weird hippie look for a few more weeks. Hey, they already hired me, right? I could always use my old, dull barber scissors and take to my own hair.

I will be getting my first check at my new job (which is full-time but temporary up to the week of Christmas) next week. So that's a good thing. It was just so painful to have this incident now, as things are looking up. Why me, why me?

I was angry. I was yelling, and shaking, and sobbing, and cussing at these two men--all of these things, except the sobbing, are quite unlike me. And I was wayyyy late getting back to my new workplace, which is awesome. 

But then I had to get back into my cheerful elf voice, writing on the marketing team at the Christmas publishing company where I work. I honestly felt like calling it a day. But I kept it together because, first, now I needed all these hours more than ever, and second, these people are still getting to know how I operate, and it is imperative that I not fall apart and seem like one of those people who always has drama and is always crying at work. I am not one of these people, so today, when I get my first car boot, would not be a day to appear to be one of them.

Every time I thought about what happened this afternoon, my eyes would well up and I would feel sick. I thought about it over and over, what could I have possibly done to make those guys' jobs the absolute worst? I hope they really hate that job. Because if I had to stand there while some woman lost it--truly lost it--in the parking lot, and scream at me, I might hate my job.

I'm still not over it, but as the day has worn on, this raggedy, awful, headachy day, I just had to let it roll off of me. Ok, so it hurts now. It won't hurt forever. It's like back when overdraft fees were at their peak, and I was an undergrad, getting hit with fines multiple times a year. Nothing brings naseau faster than not having money you thought you did and seeing that red balance, or walking around the corner to find a $100 fine attached to your car. I hope there is a time in my life when I'm not at the bottom of the barrel scratching and can pay my monthly bills without my account balance zeroing out around $6 when they're all paid. I'm thankful to pay my bills, but even these last few months, that has been hard.

Honestly, I didn't see myself becoming a victim of the current economy: one of those recent-grad, lots of student loans, can't-find-work demographic that is touted and studied and reported on. With a boot. Today was a reminder that yes, you might be seeing some good news, some professional success come your way, but don't think that means this is the end of the roadblocks. They are all over, they are hidden and often conniving to stack up all at once, and they will never let you off the hook. I resign and concede to the inevitability  of the occasional really awful boot.

Dispatch from the Edge of Recession: Job Market Moment... the Elusive Excitement

I have that sick, nervous feeling right now. I just came across a job posting for a place I desperately want to work, here in Atlanta, with an amazing mission and unbelievable combination of my passions, skills, and beliefs. And every single thing they list on the job description I can do now, and would dominate in that position. Writing for the web and published media sources, networking, working with the press and local organizations, planning and organizing in-house documents and memos, social media management,  photography for events and media, group and project work, and a boatload of other exciting things--and above all, believing in the mission of the organization. Seriously, I would rock this job and every responsibility I am given, because it's things I excel in already and have done in many capacities before, but also because it's in a field that I have dedicated two degrees to so far, and both of them fostered my concern for the mission of this organization as well--civil rights, human rights, communication along cultural and racial lines, understanding of one another. I am riddled with excitement, to put it mildly. Suddenly, I have gone from a regular night of searching job listings and imagining my near future in retail once more (and working for seven bucks an hour, woo!), to imagining something far different and much more exciting--working in a meaningful position for a purpose, putting my skills and work ethic to the test and building them further. I desperately want to pour myself into a job. And I really want it to be something I care about, though I have had to make sacrifices in this portion of my goal, because employment is more important than holding out, unemployed, for a noble goal. I am realistic if nothing else. (Hey, it might take a few years of crap to get back to the noble goal. And student loans don't pay back themselves.)

So I have been applying to various clerical jobs, submitting my resume to staffing agencies, saying I'm looking for administrative work. And the recruiters ask me what kind of work I am looking for. The honest answer is any work, at least at a rate to cover my bills. But perhaps that sounds desperate, not ideal--so I'll say admin work, sure! The job fair I went to today had many openings for health care workers, police officers and security professionals, warehouse workers, and for those seeking employment in the fast food industry. It was a depressing picture for someone with a niche degree like Heritage Preservation. Try throwing that one on a staffing recruiter. I try to emphasize my strong administrative skills in the conversation, too.

In the nine months during which I have been applying to jobs, this is only the second one to arise that is here in the city I love, which I am qualified for and which truly, makes me utterly breathless with excitement. I immediately bound ahead in my brain, to having the job, making positive improvements, wearing my beautiful skirts and blazers and representing well everyone who has helped me get to this point. I have had days where it has been impossible to imagine, to conceptualize, my future--what job would I even be doing, and where, and for whom? It is a fast downward spiral when you can't conceptualize whether you will be folding clothes or doing data entry or answering phones, or changing the world in my own small way for an employer I love.

This is only the second job to send electricity down my spine. I read the long description over and over, and each time, I am more confident that I can nail every single bullet point. I am a master of so many of these things already. And when I am on paper, the only thing people see is that I'm a recent grad with no full time work experience, even though multiple, simultaneous part-time jobs have earned me all the skills I have and use in what equals a full-time commitment of my time--and which make me exactly the person for the job. But my mind has already blown past this more realistic doubting part of my brain, because, of course, you're made for this! They'll see that!

That is what I really believed about the singular previous position that I desperately wanted and felt highly qualified for. I didn't get that job. I got an overly formal and way-late e-mail response from some lady I had never spoken to, saying they had chosen someone else. Now, in nine months of scores of job applications and submissions, I am quite used to impersonal rejections and regrets, but this one hurt. I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't get it, but I also thought there was a good chance I could. The experience has made me thoroughly exhausted with employers not wanting to take a chance on a passionate, young professional. Heck, I'll work for next to nothing and I really care about the job! And I work hard to boot! And communicate well! What on earth more can you want from a candidate? Idealism? Creativity? Tech savvy? Perseverance? Amiable personality? Strong leader? Organizer? Oh, wait -- I am all those!

This is a public website, and I am fully secure in posting my thoughts publicly, because you know what? I'm a frustrated twenty-something in a tough transition, in a terrible economy, in a niche industry. And I am not going to hide that from employers, professors, parents, friends, strangers. The excitement I feel right now is very real, and I risk heartbreak and sadness all over again for what could become a missed opportunity to perform above and beyond in an excellent position for a great company. I really need to share that feeling with you, because it is the tiny little glimpse of the future -- of producing great things and of the potential I have sitting right here at my desk -- that keeps me from giving up.

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.

On Atlanta's traffic issues and the dismal hope of a better future: In which I present a scathing criticism of the state and the metro counties

I know the Atlanta/Metro Area Transportation Referendum is old news; the vote was July 31, 2012, and it went down in a blaze of glory. Citizens again voted against solutions to our clogged traffic and lack of alternative transportation options. The plan was not perfect, and in fact still included for many surrounding metro counties, plans for more roadways as part of the new options. (Sorry, say what? What??? There was really nothing better you guys could dream up? It's 2012.) But it still makes me really sad for this city, and mad as a citizen who loves it, that we have doomed ourselves to upwards of fifty more years in the traffic quagmire, while our population is expected to increase by about 3 million more people by 2040. Sounds awesome, guys. Can't wait for the daily connector traffic with those extra people beside me, too! But I did feel some hope when I read my August 2012 issue of Atlanta Magazine, which was their inaugural "Big Ideas" issue, including what the editors dubbed their "Groundbreakers," the big things Atlantans and local planners and companies are doing to make this city amazing. I think this is a great city; it has imaginative people, a colorful and quite distinct history, a pretty awesome climate (all things considered), and it's arguably the hub of business and culture in the southeastern United States. That's a big deal; this is where companies set up shop if they want to have access to the burgeoning southern region, which has finally risen--for the most part--out of its difficult historical economic and social stagnation, which plagued the South from the inception of the United States until roughly the end of the Jim Crow era.

And yet we still had to screw up further potential by a fissure that has long cursed Georgia: the legislative relationship between the state (and often, the rural communities throughout the state) and the city of Atlanta. Harkening back to the days of the County Unit System (a topic for many blogs and many books, indeed), those outside the city--and the lawmakers who represent them--are often hesitant to spend time and money doing much that could improve its largest economic asset. That is exactly what has happened historically with the budding and dying and budding and dying of transportation options and alternatives in Atlanta since the 1960s, when cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco were also planning their subways and rapid transit systems. So, we all know where DC and SF stand today, right? And Atlanta, too.

Learning this particular comparison was a revelation, that all three of these transit systems were conceived and planned in the same era; I've used D.C.'s subways and they're wonderful. I can't vouch for San Francisco. But I certainly have an opinion about Atlanta's. And it turns out, the anemic rail lines we have today are a direct result of politics, and people disagreeing, and counties (counties who are part of the metro area, and have a responsibility to the city they depend on and the people who live in the counties) bailing on what once would have been a cohesive plan for a second viable commute option.

I'm looking at you, Cobb County. As my home for five years, I resent the choices your representatives and citizens made long ago, in a little mess that culminated in the Transit Compromise of 1971. It diminishes our entire reputation as a city; I want to believe this city can be even greater, but this is a bit of an important black mark on our future. I might sound a little bitter, but it's nothing compared to the scathing little article assessing the situation in Atlanta Magazine:

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta's past lapses in judgement haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.

At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn't just a one-time blunder--it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region's transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there's no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl [!!!!!!!] is key to the metro area's potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future-type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we'd settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical "undo" key?

The transit compromise of 1971.

I read this whole article and scribbled all over in the margins my own notes (as I do in practically every piece of literature I read, of any kind). Next to this whole intro, I wrote simply, "Ouch!" And then I felt excited. Yes, Atlanta Magazine, please harshly rip this apart. Represent those of us most disgruntled and angry and seeking options that do not exist because of the decisions made by voters and politicians decades ago, representing a far different Atlanta than exists today. Thank you, most seriously, for publishing this article.

The original plan for public transit, MARTA, was to include five metropolitan counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. After several failing votes, the final plan would be for only two of these counties, Fulton and DeKalb--the two the constitute the city of Atlanta. Already, really it was set up for anemic failure. The article explains the issues:

Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.

The compromise in 1971, that we finally got state legislators to agree on, was that MARTA would never be able to spend more than 50 percent of its sales revenue on operating costs, meaning it could never improve infrastructure and expand without finding money elsewhere--namely, in raising the fares and going into a lot of debt. The Atlanta Magazine article goes into the background and explains it all phenomenally. Please read it. There is a lot of politics involved. Basically, this compromise came out of state legislators bullying the city leaders into this, threatening that this whole thing would be dead on arrival, never happen at all, if they did not agree to this condition.

As an aside, this agreement doesn't even make clear sense to me. I mean, I don't see how this limit benefits anyone at all; it looks to only have been a mechanism with which to threaten, bully, and corner Atlanta leaders and lawmakers, a way to say, we'll do what we want and you, Atlanta, you'll have no say in this matter. Stop trying to be the big man on campus in this state. The problem is, Atlanta is the big man, and its potential--economic and social and otherwise--is probably permanently stunted as a result of the state's behavior towards it.

Am I being too harsh? Oh, I'm not done yet.

We had a couple of problems back in the 1960s and '70s. First, we loved the automobile, we were in the middle of a long-term love affair with our guzzling mobiles. Also, white people flocking to the suburbs really, really wanted to remain, steadfastly, separate from the city. That was precisely why they were leaving. Give me my oasis of picket fences, far away from that old wooden ship, diversity. I mean, yuck, right? But as the city has grown and become more diverse, and race relations have improved many degrees from the era of desegregation, the suburbs are also enclaves of multicultural communities. And now, none of us have any other way of getting from the suburbs to the city besides our cars. As the article succinctly and sardonically points out:

"This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation," says historian Kevin Kruse (who wrote this great book on white flight and Atlanta). "As a result, they have been in their cars on [interstates] 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. Their just not moving anywhere."

YES!

The 1960 Census counted approximately 300,000 white residents in Atlanta. From 1960 to 1980, around 160,000 whites left the city--Atlanta's white population was cut in half over two decades, says Kruse [a Princeton professor]. Kruse notes that skeptics suggested Atlanta's slogan should have been "The City Too Busy Moving To Hate." [Atlanta touted itself for much of the 20th century as the City Too Busy To Hate.] "Racial concerns trumped everything else," Kruse says. "The more you think about it, Atlanta's transportation system was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together."

In the early 1970s, Morehouse College professor Abraham David observed, "The real problem is that whites have created a transportation problem for themselves by moving farther away from the central city rather than living in an integrated neighborhood."

Also, we could not help ourselves from building enormous highways, bingeing on federal grants to help us build them

The alluring of roaring around Atlanta in cool cars took over and never let go. Once MARTA was up and running, who would ride a bus or subway when they could drive a sleek, powerful car and ill it with cheap gas? Only the people who couldn't afford the car. MARTA became an isolated castaway, used primarily by poor and working class blacks.

...

David Goldberg, a former transportation reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, says the road-building binge that lead to the gigantic highways that course through metro Atlanta--some of the widest in the world--diminished MARTA's potential. "It's not a single mistake but a bunch of decisions that add up to one mistake -- the failure to capitalize on the incredible success we had in winning funding for MARTA by undermining it with the incredible success we had in getting funding for the interstate highways," says Goldberg, now communications director for the Washington-based Transportation for America. "We were too damn successful--it was an embarrassment of success. Like a lot of of nouveau riche, we blew it before we knew what to do with it."

...

The vast highway system sucked up billions of federal dollars while the state refused to put a penny into MARTA--until the past fifteen years, during which it helped buy some buses. "The sick joke of it all is that we built the place to be auto-oriented and designed it about as bad as we could to function for auto use," Goldberg says. "The highway network we did build was designed in a way almost guaranteed to produce congestion--the land use around all that development put the nail in the coffin." He refers to neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that force cars onto crowded arterial roads lined with commercial activity, which eventually funnel down to one highway through the heart of Atlanta.

I feel strongly that what we delivered to ourselves on July 31 was at least fifty more years of the troubles that have plagued us for the last fifty. This time it might not  be race that's guiding our decision; this time maybe it was economic recession, I don't know. But I agree, once again, with the assessment of Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute and a source for this same article:

The July 31 vote is "an Olympic moment" [here meaning, one of those seminal, deciding moments, like when we were awarded the honor of hosting the Olympics 1996 Games]. "If the vote fails, you have to accept the fact that Atlanta will continue to decline as a metro area."

Harsh, and probably true. I really, really hope not. I am invested in this city, and I love it. And I hate to see its future decided by the disagreements of the counties that compose its metro area. But I can't understand how this is not of the utmost importance in the state senate--this is, after all, the future of the biggest economic center in our state, and one of the biggest and most important in the southeast region. This is a big deal. I am inclined to blame the same idiotic political issues that have plagued the city folk versus the rural folk for a century in Georgia. Let's not have them define a second century, please.

Cities are growing faster than suburbs

The 2010 Federal Census data documents a faster rate of growth in cities compared to their respective suburbs, for the first time in nine decades. The cities with the sharpest growth rate change are Washington, D.C., Denver, and Atlanta.

Every region of the United States sees this shift in the 2010 data, New York, Milwaukee, Seattle, Austin, Cincinnati, and scores of others, listed in the Brookings Institute article that reported the data.

Regarding the three outlier cities in the graph, Atlanta included:

As in most of the country, their suburbs disproportionately bore the brunt of the late 2000s housing collapse.  However, all three have important urban amenities and economic bases that are attractive to young people and other households now clustering in their cities.

For whatever reason people are staying in the city; by choice, or involuntarily (perhaps they are unable to qualify for a mortgage or have incurred some other problem related to the housing market crisis), or they are moving into the city, leaving suburbs behind for urban amenities and lifestyle.

This new ‘tipping point” clearly has its origins in the downturns in the national housing and labor markets of the past five years. Young people, retirees, and other householders who might have moved to the suburbs in better times are unable to obtain mortgages or employment. Many remain stuck in rented or shared homes that are more often located in cities.  Yet what may look like a temporary lull in the broad sweep of suburban development may turn out to be an opportunity for some cities to showcase their oft cited lifestyle and cultural amenities to a new generation of residents and developers, so that in some regions a new version of the American Dream could take root.

There is an interesting thread in this larger trend: are the motives really changing, or is this people reacting to their situations by making do, and not by achieving what they had initially planned for their lives? Is this a new version of the American Dream for the 21st century, or is this a temporary lull in our obsession with single-family homes, giant highways and matching cars, and a big yard with a pool?

I hope that the number of people scorned by the market collapse, the trauma of foreclosure, and the massive loss of value on the homes and mortgages they purchased can actually have a lasting effect on our collective psyche. I hope it challenges us to really think deeply about our means, our goals, and our desired lives. There are many ways to live contently, and the idea that a house must be the center of this is ludicrous. We have been skewed by decades of suburban dreams and urban sprawl.

So this report is great news. And I am a more recent transplant than even this data suggests. Give it another ten years, and we will be able to see if this was a fluke, affected by economic recession of the time, or whether it will have longer-term effects on where we live. Give it fifty years, and then we'll really know the role the city, and the suburbs, will have, especially as the planet swells to population 9 billion.

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.)

In which discussing my job becomes instead a tangent on why we cannot digitize everything

I work part-time as an Archives Technician at the National Archives at Atlanta. During those days, half of my time is spent in the public area, meaning I am either in the research room assisting genealogists or in the textual research room observing and assisting researchers who are examining and using our original records. Working in the public areas is one of the most important tasks student workers do here, as it supports all the archivists by giving them more time to do the many projects they have going on, freeing them up from time-consuming work with the general public. The other part of my time is split between several tasks. One, which has pretty much been on the back burner since December, is a holdings maintenance project, as everyone who works here is assigned at least one of these, so that downtime that might crop up can be used for maintenance, organization, description, and database creation for and about the many, many collections and materials we have here. Over time, we are entering information about the items in collections and folders into a finding aid, as well as creating a database that helps archivists and researchers alike to navigate each particular collection. There are so many records here at the National Archives that I know we could all do this for the rest of our lives and not complete the task.

I often walk in the bays—which is what you call the giant warehouse-style caverns that hold the endless shelves stacked with FRC boxes, Hollinger boxes, abnormal-sized boxes, cylinders, map cabinets, and marvel at the sheer amount of material they hold. There are four bays total at the Atlanta facility. I cannot even estimate any remotely meaningful number of cubic feet or number of boxes—let alone estimate a number of documents within those. Billions. Kajillions. I laughed at a recent series of online articles and commentaries that were addressing the recent Civil Case Screening Project that NARA has undertaken in the last year (I'll explain soon), in which people objected to the National Archives deciding which records in the enormous backlog of civil cases would be kept, and which would be destroyed. People have been upset for a number of reasons, some founded, most unfounded or unrealistic. My favorite innocent comment came from a woman who perkily suggested these records all be digitized instead, since one of the arguments for destroying a portion of them was due to space constraints within NARA facilities. She proposed digitization as if that was the simpler, easier answer. Clearly this woman has neither spent much time digitizing anything (it is ENORMOUSLY time-consuming and painfully monotonous) nor, obviously, has she ever taken a peek at the cavernous bays I walk through every day I am at work. I think it would be a healthy dose of medicine for each patron, every American citizen who gets angry at the federal government for not being able to locate a record they are seeking by searching for someone’s name, to take a look inside the bays of the Archives for a glimpse at how many things we keep here. Records are not organized by a handy name reference, no. And they never will be if you understand anything about federal records. Nor, also, will they all be digitized. Not ever.

A day with Marie

I took the day off work to spend time with my friend Marie, and go to the Sewing & Quilt Expo in Atlanta for the first time. She was quite delighted when we first met to discover I quilted, as she has three daughters and they mostly aren't interested in her hobby. (Her daughters are all Chinese adopted--that's how I know Marie. All three are teenagers.) I was a delighted guest of hers, as we trekked over to Gwinnett County and spent a few hours fueling creativity and getting inspiration. We both had projects we were shopping for, which gave us goals. The quilt show that is also a part of the Expo was smaller than usual, Marie said. All the quilts were nicely done, but bland, generic, traditional, and in general, very ehhh. Except for one row of extraordinary mini quilts, all around 1' x 2', designed each by a member of the NYC Metro Modern Quilt Guild. (Add this exhibit to the list of additional reasons for me to live in NYC in my life. What an awesome guild.) There were panels along the bottoms of the display that told about the inspiration behind each of the mini quilts, a form that offers so much potential for creative juice, because no technique is too big to get overwhelmed by when the final product is tiny. The driving force behind these quilts was the question, "what does modern quilting mean to you?" And the results, in both work of art and words explaining, were captivating, creatively inspiring, and beautiful.

My favorites are here. My photos do them terrible justice. All the mini quilts were beautiful--you should read more about them and their meaning.

The first, Back in To-Day, features two photographs transferred onto the fabric, the first from the Library of Congress's folklife photograph collection, of a woman--in her own modern day--working on a quilt. The second is the creator of this piece, working on her own modern quilt. Quilting, she says, is modern always--for the person doing it. It is happening right now. Interesting perspective on modern quilting.

The second one is scanned images of the quilter's deceased cat, which he started playing with in ditigal form after sorting through some papers years after the cat had died and realizing that chopping the images up yielded graphic and interesting results.

The third is all creams, tiny stitches, and one patch of teal. Right up my modern quilt alley. They are all stunning in person.

I also loved the African textiles and traditional patterns and quilting motifs, but anyone who's ever heard me gush about these motifs from when I was researching them for my material culture class already knows I'm crazy for them. The things they have done with narrow woven pieces of fabric, and created so much movement and pattern... amazing.

A good day.

 

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.