a little red bag

I began this project at a time that was fraught – a time that I was searching. The idea of turning forty hit me hard – harder than expected. I was looking for a way to make some sense of it, to catalog the days – to help me find my way.

So today, on the eve of the day when it all turns over, here’s something it has taken me nearly forty years to learn:

You spend your whole life – every hour of every day in one way or another – wondering why, how it could be that you were not wanted enough to be kept. And how once you were lost, why you are still – all these years later – not wanted enough to be found. And that question – that very question – that wakes you in a panic in the night; that casts a long dark shadow over anything you make or accomplish or try to be proud of; that leaves you feeling empty and alone even when you are surrounded by people who love you, who have dedicated their lives to loving you – that question has no answer.

You are asking the wrong question.

You are waiting for an answer that will never come.

Not from the parents who take you in, buy you sundresses and party shoes. Who applaud you, beaming, from the audience of your dance recitals, your spelling bees, your graduation speeches.

Not from the friends, who gather round you, send you letters and cards and notes. Who call you on the phone to talk you down from your fits of rage. Who take you out dancing when you are feeling sad.

Not from your husband. Who holds you while you cry in the night. Who covers you in a blanket when you are cold. Who brings you coffee in your favorite mug before you can ask. Who carries your fears with him in and out of your days. Days that are a whirlwind of carpools and music lessons and trips to the grocery store. Not even from him.

That answer – that one single answer – does not come. Will not come.

And so in the mornings, when you prepare yourself for the day ahead, you try to remember that the piece of you that feels missing will always feel that way.

And so, maybe - just maybe - fixing it is not something you have to address right away.

My mother used to tell this story: When I was in kindergarten, we lived about a half mile from the school I attended, and so she would walk up to meet me, and we’d walk back together. I was always happy, she said, coming from school, and we’d walk holding hands. Sometimes, I’d skip ahead. But as soon as we got in the door, I would cry for no discernable reason. We’d step inside, she’d close to door behind us, and I’d stand in the middle of the dining room, and cry. For several long minutes, I’d be inconsolable. She’d ask me if something happened at school. If I was hungry. If I was tired. “You didn’t answer. You’d just sob and sob,” she said, “like your little heart was broken.” This happened every day for about a month. “And then one day,” she said, “like whatever cloud had been following over you had finally passed, you stopped.”

A year ago, I was at a week-long professional seminar at a university with people from a number of different countries. One night, walking back to the dorms with a young man from Nigeria, he asked me about myself, about where I was from. I told him I was born in Korea, but had been adopted and grew up in New York. I gave him some more details about my life – where I lived now, my husband, my children. We were walking, the evening was warm. We were waiting at a stop light when he asked: “Why do you say that you were adopted?” His question took me aback. I hesitated, so he continued. “You had parents who raised you, right?” I nodded. “So you are not an orphan. You are many other things, but you are not an orphan. You should not identify yourself that way.”

Another kindergarten story: One day, we were told we could bring in a toy from home. Something that we would share with the class. Tell a story about it, why it was important to us. I had a red vinyl bag that I took to school with me – it looked like a little briefcase and it closed with a buckle. My mother: “We were getting ready to leave, and you said you were going to pack up your bag. You were in your room for a long time. You came out with your bag, and it was bulging. The buckle could barely close. As you got to the door, you dropped the bag, and everything you had packed in there came spilling out on the floor. Little pots and pans, your stuffed animals, your dolls, your books – you even had some ribbons and bits of fabric in there, your shoes – It looked like you had tried to pack everything you had in the world into that little red bag.”

All of this – these concerns and anxieties – of being lost, of wanting to be found, of never being loved enough, of a wound that will never fully heal – it is old music, it is tired, sad music, but it resurfaces over the years, at unexpected times, in unanticipated forms.

There are the expected moments, of course: When you get married. When you give birth to a child of your own. When your mother dies. Mostly, you know that these are coming. You can prepare yourself. You can surround yourself with the necessary care.

But there are the moments that are impossible to know, impossible to prepare for:

When you are walking on a warm night in Cambridge, with a fellow student you’ve just met and he asks you why you call yourself an orphan. And later, in your dorm room, you lie in bed and whisper the word “orphan” over and over again until it has no meaning at all.

When you read a book about a missing girl and the man who spends a decade trying to find her. And when he finds her – in another country, having traveled the world looking for her – he tells her that he has never stopped loving her, would never stop, would never quit.

When you see your child at the age you were, hear the language she uses to love you, see the ways in which she knows you – your voice, your face, your arms – how she follows you when you leave the room, if only for a moment.

Those moments leave you reeling, breathless. Make you come up short. Like you have run for a very long time but know that you still have very far to go.

Forty is an important birthday, a colleague says to me, although we had started talking about other things. You shouldn’t waste it. “Use it to do the work you need to do,” he says. “Maybe lighten your load a little. You know, put it all down for a while.”

I think about my little red bag from kindergarten. All the little pots and pans. The stuffed dog. The spool of ribbon. The shoes I wore on the flight from Korea.

It is not as simple as that, of course. To empty one’s bags and live – unencumbered – in the present moment. To live forward, as the adoption literature suggests. But what is the journey of our lives if not to try, to keep trying, to fail miserably – utterly, completely – and then to try again.

Today seems as good a day as any for that.