The Summer Cottage

"Decor tends to out-of-date calendars, mismatched crockery, paintings of bears in the forest, and lace curtains hanging in doorways to defend against mosquitoes."

 

I read this description several times, in a perfectly-timed National Geographic article about the Russian dacha, which is a fully Russian cultural element, and is basically the little plot of land where a family escapes the drudgery of their urban dwelling during the brief Russian summer. It is a place where gardens are kept, which the article points out was crucial during the days of food shortages, when people relied on these part-time homesteads as sources for food.

 

The dacha has a fascinating history, within Russian culture, as the land that was parceled out to courtiers during the reign of Peter the Great, as the gifts presented to political and cultural elites during Stalin's rule as one mechanism tool to assist in  "keeping writers under control" by keeping an eye on them in one particular neighborhood of dachas outside a city. In the modern age, the McMansion versions owned by nouveau riche Russians, called kottedzhy (cottages), are their own cultural entity, with different meaning and use entirely. And the article points to the changing larger meaning and use of these tiny summer homes, as places of refuge from stark, urban apartment buildings and the bustle of weekday life and work, rather than as pieces essential to survival, and certainly lacking finer amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity. Some full-time dacha dwellers resent the fancier interpretations of their neighbors who come in from the city.

 

I can see the resentment that might lie underneath these tiny cottages and their crop-growing plots of land, and the voices from these dachas make for perfect summer reading. Because, all cultural arguments aside, it made me fully nostalgic and absolutely homesick for the dacha of my own family and childhood.

 

"Everyone in Russia has a dacha story. It may be a trace of childhood memory like playing ball late into evening by grace of a sun that won't set, gathering pine-cones to perfume the samovar fire, or swimming in an icy pond rimmed by green spires of spruce," the article waxes.

 

My aunt and uncle have owned their tiny cottage on Moon Lake in Iron Mountain, Michigan at least as long as my lifetime. It is our automatic location for family picnics and events during the few months of summer weather they get in the Upper Peninsula of the state. A short season means that crescent-shaped Moon Lake, like those Russian bodies of water, never really gets "warm," but it is the most refreshing kind of clean, clear, deep-water northern lake, and I adore it. Various boats haven pulled me and cousins and the occasional friend behind behind it, in inter-tubes, our bodies bouncing and our hands gripped for dear life on the handles, until we give in and disappear behind the wake of our vessels. We played 'King of the Raft" on the old wooden raft my uncle constructed and anchored just offshore, sometimes with so many of us on it that it disappeared below the surface of the water, leaving us standing on the glittering blue-black top of the lake.

 

All the odds and ends of our lake days are stored inside the tiny cottage on the property, which for as long as I've known it has not had any room devoted to actual habitation. There is one bedroom, and it is filled to the ceiling with wetsuits, inter-tubes, water skiis, beach towels, extra clothing, blankets, and floating devices. Each room is filled with the kind of old furniture that has retired from full-time use in primary dwellings, and now resides in the cottage, so each is a relic of the  eras past. The whole place feels like the 1970s, underlined by the dark orange shag carpet with decades of dirt, grass, and beachy foot debris sunken in--but somehow it is still soft and comforting after the chilly outside air and water. Their are several 100-piece puzzles in tiny square boxes, the same ones have been there my entire life, and I always choose the one that is a big bowl of strawberries. This is the only one I even remember, and I loved to sit inside and let my swimsuit dry while I worked on that puzzle.

 

The best thing about these nostalgic bits of their cottage is that my aunt has changednothingsince. That carpet, the strawberry puzzle, the room full of lake supplies, the kitchen and dining room areas strewn with clutter, sale items, assorted kitchenware, piles of cases of pop (not soda, this is the U.P.), the old blow-up doll we used to dress in real clothes, even the apple cinnamon air freshener for the singular little bathroom: the same.

 

This is the place I envisioned in my mind as I read about the Russian dacha; it is the place of a thousand summer memories, of enjoying the short months of warm sunshine, a break from the winter cold. As I got older, obviously, I moved to Georgia, with its own excess of heat. But I remember one summer, when we were back visiting for a few weeks, one aunt remarked that my skin had grown considerably darker there than it was when I had arrived. The Michigan sun was just the right strength, where you can survive outside all day, laying along the dock on your old, faded towel, sitting in the swing beneath the pine trees. This time of year in Georgia, all I really want to do is sit inside, in the air conditioning. Pools are okay, as a source of cooling off, but I never was much of an ocean, saltwater girl. Give me those glorious Michigan lakes any day. And a scoop of Blue Moon ice cream, which only those from the Midwest/Wisconsin/Michigan zone will ever have tried (unless you know someone from the area, who has let you in on the secret).

 

I haven't lived in Michigan since 1998, but every year around this time, I long for the lake, a day or two or three at that cottage, k-bars and sub sandwiches and pop at the picnic table and a visit to that strawberry puzzle. To me, a little cottage on a tiny lake in Upper Michigan is the most ideal summer hideaway I can imagine. I only hope I will continue to have access to a place like that, and the means to get there every now and then. There are plenty of jet-setting locales and beautiful, cultural, otherworldly places I also want to visit, too. But there is something engrained in my being that will always hold clear, Michigan lakes and tiny, cozy cottages as special. It's a lot like the daughter who arrived at her father's dacha in the article:

 

"She travels everywhere," Boris says. "Egypt, Italy, Turkey." This time, Vladislava, who works in advertising in St. Petersburg, had gone to comfortable, orderly Switzerland. But Vladislava had had her fill of Swiss perfection. Now she longed for the familiar warmth of cobbled-together, unruly Nertsy [the dacha community where her father lives]. She sat on the deck of the family dacha and gazed at the calm, green oval of Lake Nertsy. Sunbathers stretched out on half-sunken docks splintered by winter ice. Water lilies floated like tiny yellow coronets. "Lake Geneva," she said airily. "It's just a pond."

 

This is the perfect sentiment to describe the feeling of comfort in a place like this; it goes beyond aesthetic or appearance--in fact, it is a place often filled with kitsch. But it is also a place of memory, of freedom, and of little carefree moments, added up over time.

 

"This is part of our family history" - meaning in the AIDS Memorial Quilt

I want to share with you the meaning behind Parnell Peterson's quilt panel, which is in Block 2744 of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I have learned so much about Par through his sisters and my mom since I first visited his panel in January, and much of it shall remain in my unpublished writing and memories. However, I think his quilt panel is an extraordinary example of something that occurs on a larger scale within the enormous memorial--the largest piece of folklore in the world--and that is still expanding with new panels submitted every year. (It currently contains over 48,000 panels.) You can look at a hundred quilt panels and see things that look similar to Par's, which is pictured here.

Now I want you to read his sister Margi's description of their process, each piece, and the meaning of it all:

Making Par’s Quilt panel was a wonderful and healing endeavor for all of us – indeed, many of us.  We had sent out a letter, inviting friends and family to make a small square that we could then incorporate into the larger panel.  We got so many, with so many wonderful stories attached that we soon realized that we would have to make a double panel.  The top of the panel symbolizes the Northern Lights, which became our symbol for Parnell, after an amazing and miraculous experience we had with them, the night Par died.  (That is a story in itself, which I will share at another point.)  We had decided to use a tree as a symbol of life continuing, nature, the land that Par loved in his professional life, as well as personally, having grown up in the UP!  The photo we placed in the middle of the upper panel was the inspiration for the whole thing – and then at the last minute, we decided to attach it because it is so beautiful and fit so well.  The inscription, “Your Light Shines On” refers again to the Northern Lights and our belief in his continued presence which lights each of our lives and always will.  We then decided to put all the small squares on the lower panel and to run the roots of the tree down through and amongst them….symbolizing that this is the ground and foundation from which Parnell came, grew, was nurtured, and lived – all these people who were somehow a part of him.  The hands at the bottom of the tree are those of immediate family members, including niece and nephew, protecting the memory and holding it close.  We loved how it turned out!  We each actually have a small photo album of each square and the story that came with it…such love and grace in each one!

There is a stunning amount of meaning put into every, single, thing in this panel. Knowing how much thought went into his, I imagine similar kinds of deep meaning in each quilt panel. It makes me stop, linger, ponder and examine each square that I do see even more closely. What was compelling and inspiring these people, or this person, who loved this other person, who we are now remembering? If even the dyeing of the denim fabric behind Parnell's panel had boundless personal meaning for his family, imagine this same thought multiplied by the number of people memorialized on this Quilt.

The past two Mondays, I have confirmed a few more of these meanings, backstories, which remain so mysterious and anonymous to most people who visit the Quilt on display, or view its panels online. I have been volunteering to offer my small amount of help to the larger effort of bringing the Quilt back to Washington, D.C., where it will be for almost four weeks this summer. The first team departs this week to bring the acres and acres of fabric to the Mall, the Smithsonian, and various other locations in the capital.

My job has been quite extraordinary: check, assign a working panel number, and document each new square that has arrived this year, so that these unfinished panels may also make the journey to Washington and be sewn into the larger Quilt during the ceremonies and viewings. It will be a very active way of sharing the Quilt, having these newest panels sewn in as part of the displays themselves. So I also go through and record any additional things that arrive with the new panel, like a letter, photo, or other momento.

Last week I read a letter from a woman explaining that this panel was made in memory of her mother, who died in 1994 or so. But it was made not by her--it was a surprise from her fiance. It was he that was also going through the sadness; I don't even think he knew her.

Today I read a letter from a mother asking forgiveness for "mistakes" or "imperfections" in her panel, which she submitted in memorium of her son, Scott, who passed away in 1997. "I've never done anything like this," she wrote. It is so interesting to me to read people's unsure, honest thoughts when mailing in something so personal, so much a part of them. Margi, Parnell's sister, said actually handing over Par's quilt panel, after all that work, was much more difficult that she anticipated. Almost like giving up a piece of Par himself, some of that closeness and memory.

It makes me smile, as I cannot imagine anything that would be similar to submitting a panel to the AIDS Quilt; of course this is new territory. But she described the lovely details she incorporated into her son's panel: dark denim and light denim from the pants of his older and younger brother; velour from his niece's jacket, and a patterned piece of his maternal grandmother's blouse. Once I opened up the panel to see, I was struck by her use of the bits -- not as a random assortment, but as mountains in the landscape she created for him out of fabric--he was also a lover of nature. Again, I am struck by the meaning behind some simple stitched mountains.

Another of my favorites, steeped in meaning and yet so simple, is the family who submitted several squares for individuals in their family who have been taken by HIV/AIDS, and this other panel to accompany them all in the Quilt. "This is part of our family history," it says simply.

This is absolutely so. I hear a lot of family histories in my work at the National Archives. Every other person has a family tree to rattle off to me, a Native American chief ancestor, and several on the Mayflower. HIV/AIDS is such a significant part of human history, and it is now part of the family histories of so many.

"Life in the Age of AIDS is the Story of Us All."

This is the adage that hangs printed in the front offices of the NAMES Project Foundation, the headquarters and keepers of the AIDS Quilt. This sentiment speaks so much truth, and relates exactly to that family's panel, an actualization of their grief, and their insistence on making sure this remains a part of their story. Because we all own it.

I cried only once during 5 hours of processing new panels. I opened one up, unfolded it gently on the table, and pictures of a young man stared back at me. I read his lifespan: January 5, 1987 to September 11, 2010. He is, he was, my age. He was lost to AIDS at the age of twenty-three. How does this still happen? I felt outrage, sadness, shock, anger, thinking we were at least more equipped to handle HIV in the 21st century. But Ricardo did not survive it. This is why the Quilt is still important; and it is not a problem existing only far away from us, in Africa or in the 1980s. We are not immune in the United States and it is crucial that young people have the information they need. Seeing Ricardo's square was a reminder, a wake-up call that this is not an abstract health crisis. He died, and he was my age.

What are the words to properly explain this, to come to terms with it, to understand? I can only keep offering my time, skills, and love to a cause.

 

Sneak peek: Dublin loft living

Last week, I took a day trip down to Dublin, Georgia, where my parents have lived for almost ten years. I went to spend some time with my Mom, leading up to her 55th birthday, but also to got through some things they still have in storage that need to be whittled down as they continue downsizing. I took some photos of where they live now, because I think that in a few years, they will have wanted to have a bit of documentation of this phase in their lives, and where they worked through big shifts and took on different commitments, now that their children have grown and moved out. I love this one-bedroom loft. I love the tall ceilings, the old floors, the way the whole unit is a bit tilted--literally, furniture tilts forward slightly. And my Mom has it stylishly understated, which she can keep in order far more easily than when multiple kids and multiple friends tore through the living room and kitchen constantly. She says, oh, there's so much sewing stuff around, so many dresses (it's prom and pageant season) hanging and flopped over everywhere. But that's part of their moment right now too. It's life, right now.

My mom is often giddy when she talks about no longer having a mortgage. Freedom. 

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.

And Carl is 18 today

The youngest in our family, Carl turns 18 today, finally graduating us to four adult children. He has just started school at the University of Georgia, where he finished his freshman summer term last week. Very proud of this "little" brother too.

Muammar: A note on my mother's nickname

My mom's name has been in the news a LOT lately. About six or seven years ago, at some point, she began referring to herself as "Muammar," a take on Muammar Ghaddafi's name, but we would most often spell it simply "Momar." If you hadn't guessed, this is more than anything a play on the word Mom, nabbed from a popular culture and global reference--my parents having been around during the '80s, the last time we had a serious confrontation with the rather loony man.

We are a family of nicknames, indeed. My parents have adopted several alternative names over the years, which always end up on their birthday cards and Christmas gift tags. My dad has been Clark, after Clark Griswold in the National Lampoon's films, for many years--it's a name my Mom really started many years ago (I was either young or not born yet). His actual name is Mark. And due to the operatic stylings she has been known to bust out, we dubbed my Mom "Blanche Munchnick," after Madeline Kahn's similar-singing character in one of our family's favorite movies, Mixed Nuts. As if you needed to shorten a one-syllable name, my brother Neil has become simply "Ne." Paul has been "Paulio" ever since his days of addiction to the Paulio string cheese brand. I began calling Carl "Carola" I think partly because of the Toyota Corolla, and that has caught on as well. Much of this playfulness comes from my Mom, who uses "Ralphie" as an interchangeable name to refer to or call any of the men in our family.

But Ghaddafi might be the one we've giggled about the most over the years, as an almost absurd title that wasn't supposed to stick quite as well as it has. I mean, there are many days when my Dad might answer the phone and say he's "passing me over to The Colonel," or simply to "Ghaddafi." Yes, we've adopted all forms of the wacky human-rights violator's name as a set of endearing names to call our matriarch.

Grotesque? I don't think so at all, because Muammar, as I have referred to for many years, has a separate persona entirely from, a handy nickname that fits and has detached long ago from an conjuring up of the face, or the history, even. That has obviously changed vastly in the last few months, and I do not mean to make light of an extremely grave situation in Libya, but it does give me a smile sometimes to think of how often it's in the news, this name I have used for many years in a very personal, loving way.

When we first began calling her that, I remember her having to explain who he was to me--that's how young I was when the name caught on. Then, for a long time, I imagined this far-flung African figure as someone who must surely have long-died, a tyrant the sort of which did not exist anymore, someone who maybe struggled for independence throughout the World Wars but had since become part of those sagas gone by.

So until recently, with him being largely out of the news for at least a decade, the name really didn't bring about thoughts of destruction and death, and crimes against humanity.

But for me, it rarely does this. His voice and his face and his actions create far more vivid a picture, of a man who has too much pride and confidence that he is what Libya needs to thrive. For me, the name belongs to someone else entirely.

I tell my mom nowadays, it looks like very soon she will be the only Ghaddafi left, and that sounds nice.

Please excuse my protracted silences

It is unbelievable the kind of things that are unfolding right now in the world. We've started air strikes in Libya, and uprisings continue all across the Middle East and North Africa, most recently becoming violent in Syria. (It is rather jarring to think that the tipping point--or rather, the catalyst--for all of this was a fruit vendor in Tunisia.) There was a devastating earthquake--the largest in Japan's recorded history--followed by a resultant tsunami and a nuclear disaster that continues now, though it has stabilized considerably. In the United States, a political drama played out in Wisconsin over government employee's collective bargaining rights. Remember just three months ago when Senator Gabriel Giffords was shot in Tucson? The ravages of a rough and tumble, war-torn, disaster-torn planet have made me feel I've aged a few years in the span of three months. For the first time in my adult life, the news on the radio really does sometimes overwhelm me, I turn it off. Or, the opposite, I listen to it so much that my brain is swimming with thoughts, emotions--things I want to remember, write down, repeat, blog about, research more deeply, share with a friend, not forget. I wrote a few weeks ago on how even though I empathize deeply with people in other parts of the world who are struggling with recent events, I feel so removed, I can't hug the man in the story who is walking his dog amidst what was once his city and is now a disaster site. I continue to feel that way, while also knowing I am not, ultimately, immune from anything. I am human just the same, living this life, and at any moment it could change forever. I live under no airs that I am somehow different. I live somewhere more stable than Libya, maybe, but that does not protect me from the fragility of the world, except that I live farther away from what is now a warzone. Don't get me wrong, I am very thankful for at least that security; in this place, I do not live each day with the worry of a bomb striking my home or my family.

In my own life, there are a thousand things on my mind each day as well. As I said, there are simply so many things happening right now, I think of about ten things I want to get home and start writing about, and when I get home at night, what little energy I have left needs to go to homework--finishing readings, papers, projects, for my classes. It feels like months have passed since I last wrote something down and posted it on the internet. I now have two jobs, one in the history department at Georgia State (which I've had since August) and the other at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) southeast regional records center. We hold any federal bureau's records that they may want kept, until they want them destroyed--and then we do that. We serve the ten southeastern states. It's not a glamorous job by any stretch of the imagination, but it is good extra money and does relate to several big historical and archival issues in my field. I thought I was crazy for taking two jobs, that occupy four full workdays and leaving me far less time for my schoolwork, and I still think I am crazy. I get less sleep, and can literally only find time for the gym two days a week (three if I'm really creative), but now I know I can do it.

Being so busy does make the weeks go by so fast, which is why I feel like it's been years since 2011 began. I've planned a trip to Cuba (my history department job), spoke at my first history conference, read about ten books, started a new job, bought an iPhone--and I really enjoy my life. But it feels like I have been working at the records center for at least six months, when it has really been six weeks. My parents have been working hard to sell nearly everything in their home, including the home itself, and are moving out now, hoping to be done by the end of the month. They will be empty nesters in a few months, when my youngest brother starts the summer program at University of Georgia, and they have downsized considerably into a brand new loft in a converted downtown building in Dublin, Georgia, where they live. My brother Neil (one of two brothers in the Navy) assumed his station at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base a week ago today, where he'll remain for eighteen months. Paul is still on hold up in New London, Connecticut, but he seems happy and content. We have all been so engrossed in our lives, in all the things happening, and also happening across the world.

I think what I wanted to say today is that I have a hundred things I can and want to blog about, put my take on it down in writing, but there is SO MUCH, that it cancels itself out. I don't know where to start, when I get home, and then I think about all the other things I need to get done and how much I really want to just go to sleep. (Or watch Parks and Recreation, the best show on TV.) Especially in this stretch to finals, the next four weeks, I fear an extended absence from this website, but it will certainly, absolutely, not be from a lack of things going on in my mind or in my life. Or in the world, as we have seen.

A fluid sense of family: on adoption and the global diaspora of orphaned Chinese girls

It's become a family joke of sorts that I may someday have a family that looks rather like that of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's. That is, a multicultural bunch of kids, a collection of orphans that I've taken under my wing. Whether this becomes a reality will remain to be seen, but I most certainly feel strongly about adoption for my own life. And on this subject there's a large elephant in my own theoretical room, involving the largest single-gender diaspora in history: the international adoption of Chinese girls. We all know I have a minor interest and fascination with China and its people, and I would be lying to say it did not extend itself to the prospect of someday providing love and family for a daughter of China.

With a couple free weeks, I was able to breeze through Karin Evans's book on the larger historical phenomenon at play here, The Lost Daughters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past. Evans, herself a mother of two Chinese daughters, spent years pondering the connections lost and found, birth mothers and families, the larger historical ramifications of so many girls leaving China and what their dual identity would mean for their own lives, their families, and the whole world as they grow (and have grown, in some cases) into adults.

Her questions, discussions, and stories resonated with me on many levels, as a woman, as a historian, as an American, as a global citizen, and as someone who feels strongly in favor of adoption. Some of the letters to her oldest daughter, written before she had ever seen her face, brought me to tears. "When we get together, you and I, I won't really know what you've been through--who carried you and gave birth to you, what she first whispered to you, how long she held on to you before having to make a deep, sad decision. I am certain the loss of you will linger with her all her days," she writes to Kelly. Evans does an incredibly poignant and thoughtful job imagining the lives and loss of the families that gave up each of her daughters, in response to the one-child policy, poverty, the persistent favoritism and preference towards having sons, and other cultural and social factors. Or, as one letter accompanying an abandoned infant said, due to "heavy pressures that are difficult to explain."

The most fundamental story from this historical narrative, however, lies with the daughters of China, the "lost" generation of girls. Many did not survive, victims of abortion--by choice or forced--and infanticide, and those who do make it to orphanages were illegally abandoned in public places, parents hoping their daughters would somehow make it to an orphanage and from there into a loving, providing family. Those who have miraculously survived have become parts of new families, some in China, some across the world, and a very large number of them in the United States. Their stories will be flooding into our lives before we know it, as they each face the enormity of the dichotomy they embody in their own, individual ways. How will they come to terms with their two nations, and how each one has treated them? (I can't wait to see and read.) One of the most important aspects--and difficult, perhaps, for adoptive parents--will be evaluating the entire process and potential value and damage both within transnational adoption. Taking a deeper look at the whole process and the lives affected, I understand it as no light undertaking, but rather a lifelong weight of work more complex than anyone can anticipate at the outset.

It again rose in my mind throughout the discussion of these girls and their futures that the notion of nationality can only go so far. Jennifer Jue-Steuck, a young woman adopted from Taiwan and a PhD candidate at UCA Berkeley as of 2008, described her complicated position and experience eloquently, as "floating down like a feather to an unmapped country between 'Chineseness' and 'Americanness.'" Nationality is once again called into question, as soon as you try to get at what it really means, and begin to determine what traits or characteristics render a person as having one specific tag. Return visits to China, by adopted children, yield questions. A bit of hypothetical conversation might go:

"Are you Chinese?"

"Nope, I'm American. But I was born in China."

"Then you're Chinese."

"I'm Chinese-American."

This is truly one of those times when the term is challenged most, and it enthralls me. What's more, in the cases of Chinese-born adopted daughters, it also challenges the entire notion of family, as does any international (and domestic, for that matter) adoption. Some of my longing to adopt comes from the desire to expand and learn more about the people of this world, and most of all to provide for a child, already born, who needs me. But after reading more about the complexities, I realize it is also because the fluidity of a family that is based on human love, rather than biology alone, stabs very deeply to the core of our very natural and instinctual selves. Evans quotes an essay by adoptive father Evan Eisenberg, who writes:

Adoption urges is toward a more fluid sense of family, a broader sense of community. . . . We move into a richer environment than the nuclear family can provide. Although modern adoption remains firmly within the nuclear orbit, it is inherently a part of this richer notion of child raising, this soup of relations that may be thicker, even, than blood.

The stronger dose of this kind of interpretation of family, the better, in this world. Evans also comes to a personal realization regarding genetic inheritance and its actual impact in our lives. While her daughters do not know their biological families' medical histories, they do exhibit interests and inclinations that, had they been biological children of theirs, would have been attributed to various family members.

When Kelly and Fanny turn out to love music, singing beautifully, taking up instruments, or dancing across the living room, it would be natural, were they our birth daughters, to credit the genetic contribution of Mark's grandfather the accordion player, say, or my mother the dancer. Yet the process of falling completely in love with these girls has changed whatever thinking I might have had about genetic inheritance. Whatever Kelly blossoms into is completely hers. What Fanny enjoys and brings to our family is all hers alone, too. We'll probably never know who their talents and inclinations come from or through, and it doesn't matter.

No matter our biological makeup or what nationality we fall under--in whatever complicated way-- a broader and more fluid notion of family garners love and acceptance. That is the message, loud and clear, in the stories wrapped up in Evans's book, exemplified through the lives of the adopted daughters, adoptive families, and a human drama occurring on an international stage. I absolutely believed this before, and am ever more reassured of it.

Although adoption regulations have increased in China (through a 2000s-version set of social and economic forces that you can read about elsewhere), there are still millions of children, born and unborn yet, who need homes, love, parents, siblings, grandparents. The country of origin does not matter to me; China happens to be the country with the most explosive conditions, and the largest of-yet studied group of orphans. What matters are the children, and there are several unborn children who will someday need a home, who will be waiting on the other end of a winding, red thread, for me to be their mother.

A break from the regular, for a personal reminiscence: my Klingelhutz family

When I was thirteen years old, I drove a four-wheeler into one of the drainage waterways running through a series of farm fields in Annandale, Minnesota. The fields were behind the Klingelhutz's house, where my Uncle Rick, Auntie Sally, and their three kids lived in a small, cul-de-sac neighborhood; the four-wheeler was theirs. To this day I cannot live that down, and it was one of my Uncle Rick's favorite stories to recount.

I had had very little experience on four-wheelers, or any engine-powered mode of transport--being a thirteen-year-old girl, after all--and Jake, who is my age, gave me a quick lesson before I took off. Jeana, who is a few years younger, held on tight behind me and we took off into the fields, getting a thrill out of the high speeds and quick turns. It ended pretty quickly as I came around a corner of the field; picture one end closed in by high bushes and the adjacent side bordered by a narrow waterway, probably about six feet wide. As soon as I went to turn to drive alongside the water, I realized we were going too fast to turn quickly enough-- we were going to flip or I was going to have to veer dangerously close to the bank. (In retrospect, everyone asked why I didn't use the brake--I can only say that a person without a driver's license and who has all of ten minutes' knowledge on four-wheel usage does not think of such things.) So I chose the lesser of two bad situations, and we dove front-first into the the mucky, dark brown waters, coming instantly to a silent stop. Jeana climbed up on the bank and began to cry a loud, hysterical wail, so that I was quite sure she was injured. But really, that is very much a classic Jeana reaction. I could feel two gigantic bruises surfacing on my thighs, where the handlebars had held me in my seat as we nose-dived, but it was the least of my worries.

Back at the house, Jeana ran to her mom's arms and began to moan that she felt that she was "dreaming." My aunt interpreted this to mean she and I had had in mind a scheme to try to jump the water, making it across into the next field--something she had warned us explicitly not to do. What Jeana meant was that she felt like she was having a nightmare, the kind that give you a cold sweat even on a hot day; her erroneous wording nearly had us both slated for trouble, but I think I earned my punishment in sheer embarrassment and humility. I had to then climb back into the muck and push the four-wheeler out while Jake and his friends begrudgingly pulled from the bank, certainly laughing (at me) while they did. I threw away the powder blue shorts and trusty sneakers I'd had on, as they were both darkest brown, and basked in the family laughter and loving ridicule of my mishap; in the meantime, the engine was dead and would not start back up, and each of my the thighs had its own dark purple stripe.

A decade later, my Uncle Rick laughed about that summer with my dad, just days before he passed away; he loved that story, and he never did fix the four-wheeler, because as soon as he did, he would have less rationale to tease me about it. And while the Klingelhutz kids and the Edens kids are now fully entering their adult lives, my memories of the Annandale house and the times we spent there remain important to me. They sold the house and moved closer to our extended family around the time I started high school, so it's a place that now exists in memories and home videos--which are certainly plentiful, if today impossible to watch (anyone have a VCR?).

I founded and ran the Edens-Klingelhutz Kids Club, or the EKKC, and in my business-like manner gathered all seven of us for "meetings"-- on what, I cannot recall. There was our version of Who's Line Is It Anyway, where we dressed up in clothes from our grandparents' storage closet and performed ridiculous skits in their Michigan garage, all in front of a clunky camcorder. And in the grand tradition of playing "house," we played "Baby Joe," in which Joe, the eldest of us all, played a goofy kid who was scared of "rhino-sissies," and his "parents" and "uncle" and "siblings" trailed after him.

I was thinking about all this tonight, as I watched my cousin Joe, now 25, play bass with the band Banner Pilot at the 529 Club in East Atlanta. My dad went to visit baby Joey and his sister Sally and brother-in-law Rick back in November 1985, when they adopted him and joined him forever to our family and our hearts. His younger brother Jake plays football for Michigan Tech now, and his games are easier for family to attend, and certainly appeal to a wider range of people. So I felt especially joyful to stand there tonight and watch him perform and do what he loves, along with my mom and dad, who drove up from their home a few hours south of town, all of us making sure he knows--in case he forgot--how much we love him.

My dad proudly purchased a t-shirt and donned it right then and there.

The Klingelhutz family is responsible for sharing a lot of love and goofiness with me over the years, and every single member of that family has contributed in some way to both rich family memories and the personality I have today. I admired Joe in the way a younger cousin does; I found in Jake an equal, a friend, and a good laugh; in Jeana, I never had a worry of being judged or criticized for being as silly or as ridiculous as I wanted; in many ways, their parents embodied all these elements, in my mind, as I was growing up. Last month at our mutual cousins' wedding, I was struck again how deeply their family embraces life, laughter, and each others' individual spirits. I am so blessed to have them in my life, and to have the memories they have conferred in my head and heart.