interview at New Books Network

It was such a pleasure to speak with Eric LeMay about Litany for the Long Moment for the New Books Network.

From the introduction: 

In 1974, a two-year old Korean girl named Mi Jin Kim was sent from the country and culture of her birth to the United States, where she was adopted by a man and woman who would become her American parents and where she would become the artist and writer Mary-Kim Arnold. Her new book, Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2018), is her attempt to grapple with that history and its aftermath, to understand the experience of that girl she once was and how that girl shaped the woman she would become. Arnold writes:

“I will never know for certain what transpired in those first two years of my life. I only know that I am continually drawn back, tethered to the whispy, blurred possibilities of the mother I will never know, a language I do not speak, the life I will never have.”

Through a dazzling range of literary strategies, from the use of archival documents and family photographs to primers on the Korean language and the work of her fellow Korean-American artists, Arnold explores these wispy, blurred possibilities. She takes us into her need to know this never-realized self and this life she never lived. By stunning and poignant turns, her book reveals the complexities of the lives we do end up living, the hauntings that make us who we are, and the unexpected way in which great art and artists pull us apart and pieces us back together.

And the book has an excellent trailer, which you can find here.

You can listen to the whole interview here

in progress: mourning ritual

This is just the beginning of an idea, prompted by an image of a traditional Korean home and courtyard that I encountered in a book about Korean family lineage records. I imagined myself in the center of this walled space and it called to mind: protection, safety, enclosure, solitude. My reaction was immediate and visceral: I want my courtyard.

At the time, I was working on my toddler dresses, the making of which was an attempt to re-create something I no longer had. And so it seemed to follow that if in being sent to the U.S. as a child, I lost my courtyard, perhaps this too was something I could reproduce for myself. I would build the framework for the outer walls – simple, spare. And the interior space would be the site for the placement of certain artifacts – dresses, books, toys, and other household items I would make or procure – to re-create a site of childhood and family that I could not otherwise have.

I envisioned that part of the installation process would include some sort of ritual – some recognition that the child – the Korean child I was – experienced a kind of death in order to be “re-born” in her American life. And so I wanted to incorporate a simple ritual of mourning over the passing of one life transformed into another.

In the weeks since I have been turning this over in my mind, I listened to this interview with Pauline Boss about the idea of “ambiguous loss.” Simply put, ambiguous loss is a loss in which you don’t know where the person is, or what has happened to them. These losses contain paradox: The person may be dead, or may not be dead. They may be coming back, they may not. Or in the case of chronic illness or dementia, they are there, but they are also not there. In ambiguous loss (unlike a more “direct” loss, when a person has died, and you have a funeral or memorial service for them), there is not always an opportunity to formally or ritualistically acknowledge the loss.

In adoption, in fact, loss of the first family or first culture is not generally even recognized as loss. Instead, the focus is on the moment when the adopted child is placed in the new family. That is expected to be experienced as a joyful event all around, and no real acknowledgement is afforded to the profound trauma that the child has experienced, before they have any ability to acknowledge, understand, or verbalize that loss.

And so I started to think about the ritual component as one of mourning not necessarily for the child (although that is always there), but perhaps more for the first mother, first father, first family. Borrowing from traditional and contemporary Korean mourning rituals, and incorporating my own experience with memorializing the dead, I want to hold a formal ritual in which this loss can be recognized and commemorated. And just as with any important milestone, I would expect to do this in the company of the significant people in my life, the people with whom I would celebrate any happy life occasion and mourn any life loss – a formal, “public” ritual of grief.

Although this is still very much in its early stages of development, I would welcome conversation with anyone who has their own experiences of ambiguous loss – in particular other adoptees for whom this notion might resonate. 

among the reeds and the bullrushes

I am hosting a work dinner at my office and as the discussion winds down, I take the tray of dessert pastries from the side table and walk it around the room, offering it to each attendee in turn. One of the men, older, but not – in my assessment of it – old enough to get away with this takes a petit four and says to me: “Ah, yes. Good girl.”

I laugh it off, keep moving, but when I sit back down I can feel myself trembling with rage. In a moment it seems he has dismissed my eighteen years of education and fifteen years of work experience. My face is hot and I feel small, like a child who has been sent to her room. I imagine jumping up in the middle of whatever they are now discussing, upending the conference table, hurling the pastries across the room at his face, all the while shrieking, “Am I a good girl now? Am I a good girl now?”

I spend most of the summer after my first year in college in the café where the theatre majors and art students nurse single mugs of coffee and scribble in black sketchbooks while Patsy Cline records play on continuous repeat. I’m approached by a man who gestures toward the book I am reading (Swann’s Way, if you must know) and says: “Oh, you’re reading Proust?” He has the slightest accent, or affectation of one, and nineteen-year-old me requires little more than that. I invite him to sit down and we talk for a while. He’s an art student, of course (I was, at the time, a theatre major) and we meander through the expected pleasantries of a budding flirtation until he suddenly checks his watch, says he has to go. “I want to see you again,” he says, and takes a piece of paper from the pocket of his pants. He writes something on it, slides it across the table to me. “Oh, and wear something red,” he says, as he walks toward the door, “I like girls in red.”

On the slip of paper, an address – or rather, an intersection of two streets – and a date and a time. It’s like a game. I’m nineteen, in love with the idea of drama, of romance, and I’m all in.

I buy a red wrap dress at the second-hand store and on the appointed date, I show up at the designated time. He is already at the intersection when I arrive. He has a giant pack on his back that is made of silver fabric that seems suitable for space flight. A kiss on each cheek by way of greeting (how European, I think) and then I follow him on a winding path that leads behind one of the college buildings and opens out to a grassy courtyard bordered by trees. He takes a fringed blanket from his pack and spreads it on the grass. He lays out crusty bread and soft cheeses on small white plates. Strawberries.

My memory of the evening is imperfect, probably because in the end, it was unimportant. We drank vodka from chilled glasses and ate bread and cheese and strawberries on a fringed blanket in a tree-lined courtyard on a summer evening. There is, I think, a kind of beauty in the simple fact of this. Of being nineteen and following the directions scribbled on a scrap of paper by a stranger in a café. I never saw him again.

My mother was an optimist. So says my wise friend L., although I am not convinced.

“Think about Moses,” she says. “Relinquishing a child is a sign of hope. It’s about imagining a future.” We are sitting across the table from each other, over plates of fried eggs and corn muffins. I imagine fat baby Moses floating in his basket down the Nile, through the reeds and the bullrushes. Was he frightened? What did he remember of his journey?

When I tell her that I think about searching, but then cannot bring myself to take any real action toward it, she asks: “What do you think is holding you back?”

This is an easy one. There is one single thought that stops me cold. That immobilizes me. That stops the hand as it hovers over the phone. The single thought is this: In the best possible outcome, the one in which my mother wants to be found, wants me in her life, what kind of relationship can I have with her, halfway across the world?

L. remains undaunted. “Well, what kind of relationship would you want?”

I think for a moment before speaking aloud the answer that I already know – have known it in my heart for as long as I can remember knowing anything. I don’t want this to be the answer, don’t want it to be true even as I am saying it, but I say it anyway: “I would want to completely integrate her into every part of my life. To make up for all the time. To start at the beginning. To tell her everything. To know everything. I would want her completely and entirely and all to myself. For the rest of her life.

She looks at me, as if considering how to say what she wants to say. As if assessing whether or not she should say it. “You realize,” she begins slowly, as if speaking to a child, “that you’re talking about a woman, probably in her sixties, who may have a family and maybe even grandchildren, friends, relatives – obligations that she couldn’t possibly leave…”

Of course. I know this. Of course. But this is my search. And my fantasy. And here are my terms: That she recognizes that I’ve become all that she had hoped for. More. That she sees this life that I have made for myself – that I have struggled to make for myself – and she is so filled with pride and love and gratitude that she wants to hold me close to herself and never let me go.

And also, there is this: If I get her back – this woman I have spent my entire life missing – if I get her back – if I can look into her face and see myself. If I can hold her hands and see what my own hands will become. If I can press my palms to her face and to her hair and if I can enfold her in my arms and feel the shape of her bones and if I can bring her close and inhale the scent of her skin – if I do all that, and then have to say goodbye, I just don’t think I could survive it. 

What I say aloud is this: “Well, I don’t think that I could bear her sending me away again.”

“Again. You said again?”

I nod. “Yes.”

Our eggs are cold. She looks down at her plate, pokes at them with her fork. She holds her head down for a long time.

When she looks up at me, she has tears in her eyes. “You remember it,” she says. “You must remember it – in your body somehow. You remember being sent away.” She reaches across the table to put her hand on my arm. We are both crying now.

“My god, you were old enough to remember it. Being sent away. And of course, you can’t bear to go through that again. You remember it all – all of it.”

Yes. I suppose I do. 

snow angels

One night last year, M. and I were at a benefit event and there was dancing. It has taken the better part of the twelve years that we have been together but now, when there is dancing, he will hold his hand out to me and I will take it, and we will laugh and sway awkwardly at the perimeter of the dance floor, my arms thrown around his neck, his hands resting on the small of my back.

We stay there, for that song and through the next. He wears an expression that is not easy to read, and I say: “It is so difficult to know sometimes, if you are happy.”

“Do you think I know?” he says, and he smiles, draws me closer in, kisses the top of my head.

It is as beautiful and true a moment as it is a terrible one. Happy? How do we ever really know?

I am reminded again of R. when he says: “The question isn’t about happiness. It is instead: ‘Do you have an ample life?’”

Yes, of course. We do.

The ride back from my sister’s house is uneventful and quiet. How accustomed we have all become to the hours on these long stretches of gray highway, green signs marking our progress, marking time.

I think sometimes about leaving this part of the country. Going west – out to the desert – to the wide sky. My aunt took a trip to the Grand Canyon last year and she speaks of it every time we see her. M. says: “Who was it who tells the story about seeing the Grand Canyon with her husband, and knowing he was depressed when he said: ‘I thought it would be bigger.’”

There are places I have never been. How will I get to them all? How will I see all the places I have never seen?

When my sister and I were small, we were invited to a party for all the families who adopted children from Korea through our agency. One of the families was hosting it at their home in Connecticut. It was winter, near to Christmas and all the trees that lined their long driveway glittered with tiny white lights.

In the entry hallway, a stairway curved up to a balcony that overlooked the front door. There were two things I remember clearly from that evening. One was watching wide-eyed as the daughter, a little older than me, slowly descended that curving staircase in a snowy white dress that was tied at the waist with a broad pink ribbon. She was clutching a doll – with jet black hair and bangs like hers – in a dress that matched her own.

The second was what can only be described as a chocolate fountain. On a table by the stairs, visible immediately as you stepped inside, sat a silver base from which a seemingly endless bounty of melted chocolate surged up and flowed back down in a multi-tiered cascade. Set out around the base of the fountain, trays of cut fruit and bits of cakes and cookies, with skewers in them, just waiting to be dipped.

The quality of randomness is something that I have struggled with. The sense that one could just as easily have ended up with a family in Portland, Oregon, or Washington, DC, or Ridgefield, Connecticut. And that some other child could have ended up in my life. The pile of papers and photos on the desk of the social worker who deals them out like playing cards: You, here. And you, there. You, to the home in Pound Ridge, where you will learn to ride horses and spend your summers in Montauk. You, to Minneapolis, Minnesota where the winters are so cold, your tears will freeze on your cheeks. You, to the red brick building in Bronxville. You will take dance lessons and write sad stories where all the characters die of broken hearts.

My sister left home just before she turned eighteen. She was a senior in high school. I had been away at college for two years. She was so close to being free of it all, but not close enough. “I was going to kill her or she was going to kill me, or I was going to kill myself. Someone was not going to make it out alive.” Even now, twenty years later, her voice trembles when she says this.

What is it that we owe to the memory of the dead? To try to see them in their fullness, I think. To shine light on their humanness – on the complexities and intricacies of a human life. The messy imperfections. The fragile joys in it.

“It was the happiest day of my life,” my mother often said, about the day she met me at the airport. There is a photo of her, crouched down, holding her hands out to me. I am crying. How did she know, then, that she was happy?

For several years, she had a blue parakeet. She spoke to it every morning and every night. She had taught it to say a few phrases: Good morning. Pretty bird. I love you. The morning they were to meet my flight, she sent my father out to start the car. It was late March, but still cold. There was snow on the ground. When he came back inside, she was crying. The parakeet dead in its cage.

That evening, after the long drive back from the airport, my mother fried bacon and eggs and made toast with strawberry jam. We all ate together at the long wooden table. This newly-made family. My mother woke in the middle of the night to find me sitting up in the dark at the table. When she turned on the light, the story goes, I held my hand to my lips and then to my stomach. Even then, hungry all the time.

I was nearly five by the time the second adoption was finalized. “You will have a sister,” she told me. She had been sick, there had been some delays in Korea. If we all went to the airport together, I don’t remember it, although I imagine that we did.

Later that year, there was a blizzard. Nearly two feet of snow. We were bundled into our snowsuits and scarves and hats and mittens. When we stepped onto the snow, it held us there for a moment before we sank down into it. My father took photos. We were headed to the park, but barely made it down the block. We moved so slowly.

My father said: “Lie down flat on your back and wave your arms up and down.”

The sun was bright and high. The cold chapped our lips.

“Now move your legs back and forth. OK, can you stand up now? Good. Stand up.”

We stood, snowblind, blinking.

“Look, do you see it?” my father asked, pointing to the places where we had been. “Can you see it? Look. You’ve made angels in the snow.”

the child easy to forget

I know a man who found his birth mother, only to learn that she had died the month before. All those years of searching for a woman who lived fifteen miles away.

And another man whose sister, from the family he had never met, lived only blocks away from him. His children played with her children sometimes in the summer, when it was so hot the neighbors turned on the lawn sprinklers and the kids jumped around in the spray, soaked themselves to the skin.

And a woman, who found her mother, an hour’s drive from her home. In a house she had driven past before, for her work as a journalist.

It gives a strange kind of comfort to think that my search would take me eight thousand miles across the earth. She is looking for me, I can think, it just takes time to cover such a great distance.

J. finally left the man who was unavailable to her, the man who had not left his wife, but would spend the nights in J.’s tiny apartment and keep her up late telling stories of his wife’s cruelty. “I met someone,” she tells me on the phone one morning while she is on the train to work. “He is so kind to me that I don’t understand it.”

Years ago, during the hazy, half-remembered years after college, I was walking back to my apartment alone and ran into a man I had known some time before. We stood on the sidewalk in the yellow light of a streetlamp and we gave the necessary reports: I’m doing well. I’ve been busy. Things are good. You look great. And you, too.

He came back to my apartment and I opened a bottle of wine. It was late. We went at it dutifully, without pleasure.

After, he apologized as he sat on the edge of the bed, putting on his shoes. The strangest thing happened to me today, he said. I got a letter from a woman who claims to be my sister. How could that be possible?

I reached out to touch his arm. I’m sorry, he said, as he pulled away. I have to go. I heard the soft click of the door as he pulled it closed behind him and listened for the even rhythm of his footfall – down the porch steps and back onto the sidewalk until he was too far away to hear.

I go back to the slim blue folder. The letters from Korea in the shaky hand, the halting English. I am looking for answers that I will not find. That are not contained in these sentences. And yet:

I believe your family are all well and happy to wait your dear daughter Mi Jin, she is healthy, also playing with her doll may be she is so happy these days.

I met her few days ago, but she has stranged to me. The child easy to forget I thought.

I do hope as fast as she could go her home and meet her a new parents

I am sending you a picture of Mi Jin please make your mind happy. 

that the line might at last be continuous

The dream is familiar, but it has not come to me for years: I am running through long dark corridors after a girl in a pink dress. She has been entrusted to my care, but I keep losing her. I am following a vision of her – just beyond my reach. Every corner I turn, I catch a glimpse of her – turning the corner ahead. In the dream, I feel as though I have run for hours.

One corridor finally opens out into a courtyard, but she is gone. The ground is dry, gray, dusty. There is a low stone wall that encircles an open area. There is no one here now, but patterns in the dust suggest motion, struggle. I walk to the center of it. Kneel down on the hard-packed earth. The faint smell of warm metal: there has been blood on this ground. I look down and there is a pink ribbon in my hands, when moments ago, my hands were empty.

That I should have had this dream – so filled with anxiety about my ability to care for a child – in the weeks before the birth of my daughter – seems a failure of imagination on the part of my subconscious mind. Its meaning could not be more literal. Meanwhile, the world in its cruelties seemed to offer up an endless spectacle of human failures: stories of mothers killing their children appeared daily, it seemed. Or at least, that is the way I remember it.

In many cases, my friend explains, mothers who kill their children will either drown them or suffocate them. Something about replicating the conditions of the womb, she says. She is a crime writer, so the confident way with which she delivers this is grounded by countless hours of grim research. I have no reason to doubt her.

I ask: But what about the woman who dressed her three children in their Sunday clothes, took them up the elevator to roof of their apartment building and walked them off it. They were all holding hands. “There are always exceptions,” she shrugs. “I’m just telling you what I’ve read.”

In childbirth classes, we had been counseled that our babies might look strange when they are born, and that we might not immediately bond with them, might not feel love for them at first. That this was not abnormal. That the love would come.

My love for my daughter was immediate and overwhelming. To hold in my arms this tiny person who was part of me, but not me. Who was of my flesh and bone. In whose soft, rounded features I could see the imprint of my own.

I clutched this child so closely to myself, as if her survival meant my very own. And didn’t it, really? In those early weeks and months, it was as though we were merely extensions of each other’s bodies. Her warm soft skin, her sweet milky breath. She was intoxicating.

Not long after my daughter was born, an adopted child was killed during a “rebirthing” treatment, which had been intended to address what seemed to be an attachment disorder. The child, who had been removed from the home of her birth parents for neglect, was adopted at the age of seven.

For this treatment, conducted when the child was eleven, she was wrapped in a sheet (meant to simulate the womb) while several adults kept pressure on her – with their bodies and with pillows – so that she would try to break free of it and thus be “re-born” to her adoptive mother.

After more than an hour in this sheet, the child suffocated and died. This story haunted me – as it did many – for months.

In the dream, sometimes the girl – the elusive, disappearing girl – is my daughter. Sometimes it is me. I catch a glimpse of her face to see my own staring back for a just a moment before she is gone. And then I am running, again.

It is tempting to seek meaning from every image, every story about a mother and child. Or, perhaps it is tempting only for me to do so. As if there is some code, some hidden message imprinted – and that if only I look long enough, look hard enough, I will discover the essential truth that has been there all along. That suddenly, when I look into the face of my daughter, not only will I see myself, but I will see my own mother, and her mother, and her mother before her. That the line will at last be continuous: the line of blood and bone.

I wake from the dream strangely calm. I get out of bed, walk down the hall past my daughter’s room, where from behind the closed door, I can hear the muffled sounds of her morning routine. Music playing low. The soft fall of her slippered feet as she walks back and forth between her closet and her bed. While I am standing in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, she walks in behind me and for a moment, our faces are side by side, reflected in the glass. She asks to borrow a pair of shoes. I turn, embrace her and kiss the top of her head, hold her there. “OK, thanks,” she says as she backs away down the hall. 

all that our arms can carry

This morning there was rain. I rose in the dark to run and was surprised to be greeted by the sound of rainfall on the brick patio outside the hotel lobby. Lovely, but not inviting this particular morning. I took refuge indoors to the sprawling fitness center where, on the treadmill facing the walkway, I let Apex Manor’s “The Year of Magical Drinking” distract me from the muted talking heads of mindless morning television. Across the bottom of the screen the headlines are absurd and without context: “Bleak portrait of poverty is off the mark, experts say.” How exactly, I wonder, might the real portrait of poverty be a cheerful one?

I am at something of a crossroads. This year leading up to forty has presented me with challenges to which I have not always felt adequate to rise. And yet mercifully, time goes on. Morning follows night, ceaselessly, and now that the date itself – with all its attendant expectations and fears – has passed, I am left feeling a bit bewildered. A bit bereft, even. I have expended so much energy in tending these anxieties, in carrying these specific burdens, that putting them down now introduces new fears. My arms are so empty now. What, then, shall I carry?

A few months after my daughter was born, we moved from Providence to New York City. I took leave from the graduate program in writing that I was in, and followed the job opportunity that presented itself to Z.’s father. It was a great offer, one he was fortunate to have, one that it would have been difficult to refuse.

We lived on the upper east side, a few blocks from the 92nd Street Y. I was at home with Z., full time. B. was gone a lot. He worked long days, traveled quite a bit – the west coast, Asia.

After the first couple months, I hired a babysitter for a couple afternoons a week, just for a few hours, and I would use that time to run errands, or to see a film or a museum exhibit, or wander aimlessly in the park. A little escape from the routine of baby care.

Eventually, I started using the time to write again. I sat on the great wide steps of the Met and wrote sketches of the tourists walking by. I imagined myself in their lives or in any number of other lives. Although I didn’t consider myself unhappy, I wanted to write my way out of the life I found myself in. I imagined all the paths I had not taken. Decisions I had made long ago – I turned these over and over in my mind, tried to carry them out to other conclusions. I was lonely, I think. I was beginning to realize that perhaps we did not have the same dreams, my then-husband and me. I was restless. Adrift.

The adoption literature will sometimes reference a sense that adoptees may have of feeling like they are not where they are supposed to be. Like they are lost, like they are wandering in a place without maps. Significant moments in the life of a family – celebrations, anniversaries, birthdays, reunions, vacations – all of these can feel particularly alienating precisely because they are supposed to feel reassuring, comforting. But these markers only serve to heighten the sense of difference. Why am I not happy when I am supposed to be, we wonder. What is so wrong, then, with me?

There are times when my friends grow impatient with me, and who can blame them. I look around and try to see my life as others might view it – the richness of it. Its considerable gifts and charms. And I want – so desperately do I want – to love it all, to be ecstatic with it, to embrace it with a joyful heart, a buoyant heart. But this sense that there is somewhere else I should be, that there is something not quite right, that a part of me – something deep and old and inexplicable – is not where it is supposed to be – is unshakeable: a phantom limb.

In the daydream life I sometimes imagine, my mother comes to visit me. I show her around my garden. It is the height of the summer – hot and dry – and the lavender is in full bloom. I have rows and rows of it, and it comes up to our knees, spills out over the borders of its beds in great purple profusion. I kneel down and cut a bunch for her – its perfume so fragrant and heady. She takes it from me, smiles, reaches her hand out to touch my cheek. Already, I can smell the lavender on her hands.

I gather up more of it – great armfuls of it to bring inside to dry, to tie with ribbons. She tells me how beautiful my house is. How beautiful the garden – how much she loves the white roses that climb up the makeshift trellis I’ve built against the neighbor’s garage. And the purple clematis entwined with it. How the irises along the back fence remind her of the house she grew up in, a house I never got to see. How the way the sunlight falls on the brick patio, dappled through the branches of the holly tree, and the patches of green and gray moss that grow along the stone wall, and the gentle splashing of the fountain that burbles in the tiny pond that we dug ourselves – how all of this – is like a dream. What beauty you have gathered around you, have tended here, she says. How all that you’ve touched seems filled with light.

How you, my daughter, are filled with light. How I love you, my daughter. My beautiful daughter.

We take the lavender in to the kitchen, lay it out across the counter. Wait, she says, I have an idea. She takes a handful of blossoms, crushes them between her palms, releasing and warming their fragrant oils. Bring me your coat – your winter coat, she says. She is excited, her cheeks flushed. I run upstairs and come back with it – an old navy wool jacket, its sleeves worn at the elbows. Here, she says, tucking crushed blossoms in each pocket. So even in winter, when it is so cold, you will remember this.

Imagine: filling your pockets with lavender. 

of one thing, I am certain

I am thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The way we construct ourselves with our language. How we say: I am sad or I am happy or I am fearful.

And: I am worthy or unworthy. I am lonely. I am alone.

My aunt tells me this: Your parents were young. They were killed in an accident. You lived with a woman and her son. You were old enough to remember.

And she says: We have no way of knowing whether or not this is true. This is the story your mother was told.

I worked for a time at an organization that helped place children for adoption. That is the term: placement. They were careful to call the book with the photos and descriptions of the children who were available for adoption a “photobook,” and not a “catalogue,” though the effect of course, is the same. This is not a criticism. There are no delicate ways to talk about this.

I heard stories there that haunt my dreams. About children being moved from placement to placement, carrying their belongings in black plastic trash bags. About a boy found sleeping in an abandoned car. About a girl who got off the bus from school one day only to find that her family had moved from their home without telling her. The door was locked. The house was empty. She had only her backpack and her jacket.

Is it possible to think that one can recover from trauma like that? Perhaps recover is the wrong goal. Perhaps this is yet another thing to be managed.

My son is five now. Occasionally, we will be getting ready to go out and one of us – M. or me – will need to run outside to get something from the car. My son will hear us at the door and start crying. We will rush up to him: What, sweetheart, what is it? What’s wrong?

I was afraid you were going to leave me, he will say through tears.

I was a little older than he is now in a story that my mother told me. I don’t remember it, except in her telling. We were going to the library and it was pouring. There was an overhang in front of the library, sheltering the front door. She dropped me there at the entrance and drove off to park the car. By the time I got to the door, you were inconsolable. Just standing there in front of the entrance, sobbing. She says: I asked you what was wrong and you could barely speak you were crying so hard. You said, “I thought you left me. I thought you weren’t coming back.”

I take my aunt to breakfast before she leaves Providence. She has stayed here for a few days with the kids, while we M. and I were away. We linger over coffee. It’s a slow morning and we are both a bit down. She tells me about the trips she is planning to take: San Francisco to her cousins for Thanksgiving, somewhere in Florida over the winter, if her friends with the house there invite her. Perhaps she will go back to Italy next year. Or maybe it will be the year after that.

We drive back home past the Planned Parenthood on Point Street. A handful of protestors are out in front already, setting up their sandwich boards and their signs. A woman paces in front of the entrance with a stack of handmade flyers. I look away.

How are you doing, my aunt asks, tentatively. How are you feeling, now that the big day has past?

I am not sure how best to answer this. I want to be truthful, but don’t want to cause her worry. Finally, I say: I guess I’ve been struggling a bit, this year, you know. It has been a difficult year.

She listens as I tell her a bit about my searching, a bit about my longing. She is quiet for a long time.

As we pull in the driveway in front of the house, she says: Maybe what haunts you is not that you were unloved, not that you were abandoned. Maybe it’s the memory of having been loved so well.

My mother takes me back to Korea when I am four years old. She is going back to adopt another child. The woman who arranges things in Seoul is an older woman. When she doesn’t want to answer a question my mother has asked, she acts as though she does not understand. My mother thinks she understands it all.

She asks whether I have siblings. The woman does not answer. My mother says if there are others in my family, other children, she would like to keep us together, if she can. The woman does not answer. One last time, she tries: I will do whatever I can to keep the children together, if there are more children. The woman shuffles papers on her desk.

The woman tells my mother in stilted English: The foster mother has asked to see your daughter. You should not go see her. You should give me a photograph and I will take this to her. You should be careful when you are walking around in the city. You should watch your daughter very careful when you are out in the street.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we had gone to see this woman. And I don’t know why I have not heard this story before. Or perhaps I have, but it has not fit into my narrative, and so I have chosen not to let it in.

To have been unwanted, to have been unloved, to have been left on the steps of an orphanage wrapped in blankets. This is a different story, is it not, than to have been taken from a loving home?

It means everything and it means nothing at all.

I am here, today. Of this I am certain.  

in the company of mothers

I meet my long-time friend L. for breakfast. “Please tell me,” she says, as she slides into the booth, “that you are not in crisis.”

I laugh. “I’m not,” I assure her. She sets her bag down and adjusts her sweater, says, “Oh, good, because everyone else around me is.”

“You missed all my crises,” I tell her. “I’ve already had mine without you. You were gone all summer. I couldn’t wait.” We laugh. She orders tea. She has a complicated life and she fills me in on the various turns of it.

I have not seen her in months. I realize as she is speaking how much I have missed her. She reports on the people in her life, people we both know. Of jobs lost. Of a divorce. Of difficulties with her children. “It’s been a challenge,” she says, “the summer was not easy.”

“But tell me about you,” she says, as she folds her napkin and sets it down on the table. “How have you been?”

I have known L. for years. Our paths crossed through an organization where I worked part-time for a few months during college. I sat next to her at lunch at a meeting one day and we started talking. I had no idea, of course, what she would come to mean to me.

How she would tell me, in the quiet dark booth of the deli a mile from her house, about the child she was made to give up for adoption.

How she would tell me the stories of her own adopted children. How I would come to watch them grow, witness them, at a distance, in their own fierce struggles.

How she was searching for her daughter. How she said she would never stop searching.

How during the long process of my divorce, I went to her. She made us tea and we sat in her kitchen and looked out on the bay. A lawyer by training, she drew up a checklist of things to ask for. What’s in the best interest of your daughter, she said.

How before I left for Korea, she called me and told me how loved I was.

How she told me that she had found her daughter when she found her. How I was happy for her - so happy - but also a little scared about losing her.

How during some difficult days of my marriage, I sought refuge there. She was kind, but direct. You already know the answer, she said. There are things you have no right to expect, she said.

After our plates have been cleared and we linger there with our cups, I tell her about the past several months. My struggles with 40. When I get to the part about realizing how much I wanted to be found, her eyes well up with tears and she reaches her arms out across the table to put her hands on mine.

In this moment, I look at her, the tears in her eyes, the kindness of her face, her arms outstretched, the strength in her hands as they clasp mine. My god, I think, and I can feel something hard in my throat as my own eyes fill. I have spent my whole life wanting mothers, and there are mothers all around me.

I think about my aunt, of course. Her utter devotion. From before my mother’s own illness, how she stepped in to fill the gap that my mother’s absence left. How she mothers me still. In every possible way.

About A., who I met in my first job after college. How she mentored me, cared for me. Brought me into the lives of her own children, who were not too far from me, in age. On weekends, she would cook for me and we’d spend the days together. How careless I was with her. I can no longer remember the circumstances that precipitated our falling out, but I remember being angry and petulant. Ungrateful.

About the women who have given me things that I have needed, have led me to the lessons I have needed to learn. About B.’s mother, who reached out to me, even after the divorce.

About M.’s mother, who writes me letters to tell me that I am like a daughter to her. Who took us in, my daughter and me, as if we were her own all along.

And L., about dear, dear L. who has been, for so much of my adult life, a constant, steadfast presence. Who I know I can call when I don’t know where to turn. On whom I have come to rely for a kind of clear-sighted, hard-won wisdom. One that does not judge. One that wants only what is in my own best interest.

The waitress comes by with coffee pot in hand, then hesitates and walks on as she sees us, our cheeks wet with tears, our arms locked.

Outside the restaurant, L. and I embrace. I have told her that I have come to understand the longing. That I am learning to manage it. Like a chronic illness, I say. Learning to live with it. That is good, she says, that is right. There are questions you will never be able to answer. We all have them. You learn to manage them. You learn how to manage it all.

The morning is bright and cool. I hold my car keys in my hand as we stand out on the sidewalk and talk for a few minutes longer. I don’t want to let her go this morning. We hug again.

“You are doing well,” she says. “You are doing just fine.” Let’s not let so much time pass next time, before we do this again, she says.

She tells me she is proud of me. She tells me that she loves me. And as I walk back to the parking lot, holding back new tears, I believe her.

I believe her.


Days where one feels unstoppable – huge, bright, propelled by some unseen force – must necessarily be followed, it seems, by their opposite: small, uncertain, tentative days. Days on which the mere act of rising in the morning while it is still dark seems nearly impossible.

There is a line of a poem I remember but cannot seem to identify its source. It is something like this: There are days when it is enough to feel the bones move easily beneath the skin. Yes. I think I know these days.

So, you love a thing. Or you think you do, which is really the same as far as your heart is concerned. You love a thing (person, place, object, etc.) and then it is gone. The feelings it has engendered are not gone. Just the thing itself.

There is a man who stands across the street from my house in the mornings, waiting for the bus. The bus comes by the house at 8:07 AM. When we go out there, my son and me, to leave for school, this man is arriving at the bus stop from Wolcott. He wears a baseball cap and often he is carrying a plastic grocery store bag with him.

When I back out of the driveway, and turn my car to go down Summit Street toward Division, he is there, standing on the sidewalk, just by the passenger side door. If he wanted to, he could open the door, and get inside, this is how close he is, at that moment. He waves and smiles. I wave and smile back. And then, I put my car in gear and am on my way down the street.

This has gone on for several months now, this waving and smiling, although I cannot recall how it started. And then for a time, for many weeks over the summer, I left the house earlier so I did not see him. But now, I am back on this schedule. There does not seem to be anything menacing about this exchange and yet I find it unsettling. So much so that I have – on occasion – risked being late, risked my son being late to school – to wait out the bus. To watch from my living room window, from just behind the curtain, wait for the bus to pass, and for the spot where he stands to be empty of him – before taking my son’s hand and walking him outside. For what purpose? So that I do not have to wave and smile at this man standing on the sidewalk? So that I can free myself from the terrible burden of this tiny human exchange? Yes. I suppose so. I am not proud of this, but it is true.

This thing you love (or think you love) is gone and you carry with you the memory of it. The memory of the moments that remind you of loving it, of the pleasures it brought you. That it was there with you at important points along your life’s path. You remember other things, in fact – people, places, etc. – though the lens of loving this thing. Your days are defined not by the way you drift through them – the way your can feel your blessed bones move easily beneath the skin – but by absence. By longing. By rivers and rivers of longing.

On the flight from Korea, I was given a small thing. Someone had fashioned it from two plastic cups. A few small red stirring sticks had been placed inside and then the mouths of the cups were held together with masking tape. It made noise when you shook it – a loud, unpleasant rattle. It remained with my other things – my Korean things: the shirt, the tights, the shoes I wore here – for many years.

Plastic grows brittle, of course. Tape does not hold. I don’t remember discarding the thing, but must have, at some time, during a move from one house to another. I think about this small thing sometimes though, until it takes on magical qualities in my imagination. As though if I looked into it long enough, as if I shook it and tossed the sticks out across the table, I could read the future. Or, maybe – more importantly – I could read the past.

In his book, Without, the poet Donald Hall writes to his wife, Jane Kenyon, after she dies at the age of 47. His poems are filled with the absence of her – with what is stark and terrifying about her absence and also about the small daily domestic tasks that are notable only in that she is gone. One of the book’s final poems, called “Letter After a Year,” begins this way:

Here is a story I never told you.
Living in a rented house
on South University in Ann Arbor
long before we met, I found
bundled letters in the attic room
where I took myself to work.
A young woman tenant of the attic
wrote these letters to her lover,
who had died in a plane crash.
In my thirtieth year, with tenure
and a new book coming out,
I read the letters in puzzlement.
“She’s writing to somebody dead?”

Is this not the way we live our lives: loving and losing? Learning again to love, learning again to lose. Again and again. And each time we lose a thing, we feel as though we cannot bear it. Cannot take another breath, cannot bear another step. And yet we do.

And yet we do, beautiful Janet. We do. 

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. 

a game of chance

This is the way I remember it:

We take the bus to Mt. Sorak, stay in a hotel at the foot of the mountain. It is a large, sprawling place, with few other guests. The heat is oppressive, but the air conditioning inside chills us through. We move between these extremes.

In the evening, we wander in the hotel casino. I carry a cupful of plastic tokens through the cavernous room, dropping a few at a time into slot machines. The sound of the tokens falling reverberates. There is only a small group of us out tonight and we stay close together, huddled over a table or a machine as though we had been warned against separation.

T. – young, sweet, T. – asks me about my life back home. About my daughter, who has just turned four. About the man I am soon to marry. He is a writer, I tell him; he has a band. He adores my daughter. I am lucky to have found him.

His youth makes him bold. He says, “And he is lucky to have found you.” I think about the nights I keep him up, weeping. About my petulance. About wanting more from him than it is possible for a person to give. I laugh it off: “I am sure it doesn’t always feel that way.”

We spend all our tokens quickly with little to show except crumpled paper cups. We find our way to the hotel lounge, a sea of salmon pink couches and low glass tables. There are little bowls of rice crackers. We order soju, drink from shot glasses.

There is a karaoke machine in the far corner, but the screen is dark. One of us, K., perhaps – asks about it. An agreement is reached – primarily, it seems, through hand waving and vigorous nods – between the waitress and K., and soon, a swirl of color appears on the screen. Green and red lights blink frantically from a black console on wheels, and K. begins turning an impossible number of dials and knobs.

The other night, I talk with my friend L., about her on-again, off-again love. After weeks of silence, he has re-emerged. They run into each other at one of the places they used to go. “At least he wasn’t drinking,” she says, “so there’s that.”

He hasn’t left his wife, but stays most nights in his office. “His studio, really.” But then she tells me that they took a trip together – a long weekend in upstate New York, stayed at his sister’s lake house. I am at a loss for words, so she fills the silence. “I’m not getting into it, you know. Whatever.”

For all its many charms and delights, Paradise by the Dashboard Light is an impossibly long song to sing. Even fueled with too many shot glasses of soju to count, T. and I succumb long before the closing strains. Soon after he first asks, “Let me sleep on it,” we hang up our microphones, and collapse on the salmon couch. Our audience does not seem particularly disappointed.

It could be minutes that pass, or it could be hours. I wake in the darkened room still on the salmon couch, to a single blinking green light of the karaoke machine. T. is snoring, open-mouthed, his head on my shoulder.

“I feel something big is about to happen,” L. says. “I am ready to do something new.”

And what of him? I ask.

There is silence on the line, and now I am the one to rush in to fill it. “I didn’t mean…”

“It’s OK,” she breaks in. “I’m just going to go with it, you know? See what happens. Be open to life as it unfolds, isn’t that what you always say?”

I laugh. I suppose it is.

On the bus back to Seoul, T. tells me this story: He had lived with a foster family, for a few years. An older woman and her adult son. From when he was almost a year old to when he was nearly four. He says he thinks he can remember being happy there, and I don’t press him on it. Then one morning, he was out in the yard, and he saw the woman and her son leave the house through the front door. He ran out to the gate and called after them, but they were walking very quickly, with their heads down.

I called and called, but they didn’t even turn around. Not once. I sat down on the ground by the front gate. I sat there for a long time. Eventually, I fell asleep. When I woke up, there was a man in a suit, standing over me, and a woman, crouching down, saying my name. She had a blanket that she wrapped me up in and carried me out the front door. She gave me a rice ball to eat and we got into the man’s car. She sat in the back with me, held me in the blanket. I never saw that house again. And that’s all I remember.

in the end, we do not choose love: love chooses us

Last night, M. plays a show in Boston while I stay home, nurse my anxieties.

We eat together, quietly, the kids and me. I roast the last of our beets.

There is homework to be done and W. and I do it, kneeling at the coffee table. He lets me play music from my laptop while we work.

My friend sends photos of M., of what I am missing, to my phone. “The lighting is so good,” she says.

Here at home, I leave the lights on – the front porch, the entry hallway, the one over the sink in the kitchen, so that when he comes in – late, so late – he can find his way. I stay up as long as I can, waiting, but these days, that is not very long at all.

In the days after hearing news of death, is it not as though death walks with us then, like shadows? Everything impermanent, fleeting. I reach out to hold on to everything I know, love – an instinctive old fear. I send notes to people I have not seen in some time. I make phone calls. And lists of more calls to make. My actions are transparent, I am sure, but it calms me to perform these small tasks.

I come to the adoptee literature late. As my first marriage is ending. A particular cruelty: we are in stunning Napa Valley, my soon-to-be-ex-husband and me, for a family wedding and while the relatives tour vineyards, sipping pinot noir, I am holed up in our suite with a stack of paperback books. The titles embarrass me, the rawness of them unseemly: Journey of the Adopted Self; Coming Home to Self; An Orphan’s Quest; Motherless Daughters.

I keep the shutters closed tight against the breathtaking views so I can throw myself across the wide bed and weep without shame. It is unthinkable, it seems, to grieve so in the face of such beauty.

“Separation of any kind can feel life-threatening,” I read. And so it does, really – then. And also later, in the early days with M.

After days spent together, his leaving would make me desperate. I’d find myself, kneeling on the kitchen floor, my head in my hands – panicked, heart racing, as the door closed behind him.

“This is not a way,” we’d both agree in the morning, after I’d begged him to return, “to start a life together.”

But in the end, we do not choose love: Love chooses us. And so he returned, day after day, and we learned to carry the old fears, share the weight of them between us. And there are days now – many days – when they are barely visible.

At the wedding, my daughter throws rose petals from a basket as the bride and groom walk behind her, their feet barely touching ground.

She is the age that I was when I arrived here from Korea.

I wake in the night and M. is still not back. I hear the rain and think about him driving the van on the slick highway in the pitch dark. Finally, the door creaks open and I pull the pillow close, settle in. I can hear him moving around downstairs – the recognizable, reassuring sounds.

He comes upstairs, finally and sits beside me, lays his hand on my cheek. He tucks my hair behind my ear. This gesture – small, familiar, done a hundred times before – now, in the dark night, after a day of longing, is an unimaginable relief. I drift off like that and in the morning, before I slip out of bed, I lean in close to hear him breathing.

I put my hand on his chest to feel the warmth of it. I bring my head down, my ear to his heart. The whole spinning world in this moment is just this: the nearness of our bodies, the heat of his skin, the breath in his chest – rising, falling, and rising again. 

how to be found

Early this year, I did something that for many years, I said I would not do. I registered with an online adoptee search database.

I looked through the slim file of paperwork that my mother left me and composed my query text, following the template of the other entries I had browsed:

Searching for my birth parents. Was found abandoned at Dongdoochun Home for Babies in Seoul. Birthdate was estimated to be October 12, 1971. Adopted by American family in New York in March of 1973. Adoption facilitated by Mrs. On Soon Whang in Korea and Mrs. Berneice Gottlieb in New York, USA.

After that, nothing to do but wait.

I have had several opportunities to do a birthparent search – an active one – but I have not been able, even when I have seriously considered it – to bring myself to take the necessary steps. I am resistant, I think, for reasons too deeply-seated for me to put words to. The reasons are still a mystery to me, may always be.

There is a way in which I’ve viewed the search as too much looking back. After all, I had parents who loved me, provided for me as best they could. I lost them young, yes, but the privileges of my life so far outweigh the challenges that I am embarrassed and a bit ashamed to linger there too long. And yet.

The fear is this: That this is the one question, so large and so deep, which so overshadows everything else that I think and that I do and that I want and fear and love that unless I can put something around it – some kind of resolution – that I will never be free of it. That I will carry it to the end of my days.

That this is what gets in the way of any progress as a writer. As a mother, as a lover. As a friend, even.

Once I was asked if I had forgiven my birth mother. The answer came so quickly that it surprised me. It was as if I had rehearsed it for years:

My heart is not big enough for that. My heart is still a child’s heart.

Forgiveness, though, is a complicated thing, no? There are days when I feel no anger, only empathy, only sadness, only longing. Is that, in itself, a kind of forgiveness?

Often, people are surprised about how little information I have about my adoption, about my birth.

You don’t know anything about your birth parents?

Do you have any memories of Korea?

There are no records of the circumstances?

In the slim blue folder, I have:

1. A 3-page document called a “Social Study” provided by Social Welfare Society in Seoul:

The child’s name was given by the Orphan’s Home as Mi Jin Kim, which means: Mi-beautiful, Jin-true, Kim-a most common family name.

The child looks cute with round face, less and dark brown hair, ordinary back of head, thin eyebrows, black eyes, low nose, small mouth, round cheeks, olive-colored complexion. Her body has balance. She has 8 teeth on both sides.

2. A booklet called “Guideline for Adoptive Parents” also from Social Welfare Society:

Now your beloved adoptive child is at your hand, whom all your family has been eagerly waiting so long time. However, your adoptive child may be uneasy at your home for the time being because everything including your different appearances is seen strange enough to your adoptive child and each other, that is, your family and your adoptive child, can not understand each other owing to the different languages. 

3. A 6-page document called: “Notes Concerning Arrival and Early Adjustment of Children” (source unknown):

The children usually arrive with colds which spread to the inner ear due to the long flying time (24-26 hours) in the pressurized airplane cabin.

 We urge that the children be tested for worms. The children have been found to have pin worms, round worms and whip worms.

And also a few pages of English phrases, with the Korean translation, presented phonetically: 

I am your mother: Nai ka nay maw ni da

He is your father: E pun e nay vaw ji da

You are my daughter: Nay ka nai dolle da

There are some letters between my (adoptive) mother and the woman who assisted in the facilitation of the adoption from Korea. Holiday cards, mostly, and a handful of photos. I also have a gallon-sized ziploc bag with a shirt, a pair of tights and the shoes I wore when I arrived.

I know people who have searched and found relatives. Some who have searched and found nothing. I know stories, certainly, of some who have searched and been rejected. Even some who have themselves been found. It is hard to know, really, what I would hope for. Which I think, is what has kept me from searching. In the best possible outcome, or at least, the best possible one my limited imagination can conjure – where I find my parents, who want to be found, and who are loving and good and kind – what kind of life can we have, separated by 7,000 miles and a vast wide ocean? How much can my small heart be expected to hold?


Now, night has fallen in Seoul. I begin my day as the day there ends, and I think that maybe my mother is there, busying herself with her evening rituals. Perhaps she is changing into her night clothes as I lace up my sneakers for a run.

Is it strange to say that I miss her, although we have never met? Or at least, not in a way that I can remember. She is there, of course, in dreams.

In dreams, she is beautiful, but weary. In dreams, she is kind, but she has seen much suffering. In dreams, she is looking for me, searching – always searching. And I am here, just out of reach.  

imaginary letter: from first mother

I met your daddy in the cool of winter when there were no stars shining through the bare branches of trees. He was kind to me, when I was myself unkind. I thought I loved him because when he smiled, his eyes danced with a kind of light. But he did not smile nearly often enough.

Do you know how many times I tried to walk away? How I had to harden my heart? The third time – it was only then that I could go. How hard my heart had become. The first time, then the second: To see your face, your mouth upturned, your eyes red and filled with tears. My beautiful daughter – how grateful I was for a girl.

You were born so early in the morning. In the blue light of morning, I felt you awaken inside me. She is ready, my morning flower.

You emerged from my body, so difficult. They cut you out of me, feet first. Did you decide, even then, that your feet would always land on hard earth? Did you know, even then, how you had to prepare for falling?

I begged you to turn. Your body so tight within me. Begged you to turn, but you are stubborn, morning flower. And your body does not yield. You are taken from me. You are torn from my body and this, it seems, is only the beginning.

The doctor cuts a line along the length of me. From this bloody mouth you are extracted.

I cannot take you to the breast, to feel your mouth on me. Do you know – do you know how a mother’s body aches for this? Do you know how my breasts blossomed for your hunger? How my body swelled to feed you, but could not –

It is late, daughter. I am so weary. After all these years, I have not found you. I sit here in this city, the filth rising from the streets, rising from my body.

The blue light of morning. Persimmons ripening on our table.

I left you there, with a basket of persimmons and a card bearing a simple wish: Please, love this daughter of my heart.

I have a cancer, they say, and it is true. It is right that I should have this in my body. From the day I let them cut you out of me, I have been dying. The doctors cut into my body again. This time, to take out the poison. But the poison is in my heart, I say. But they do not listen.

As the days pass, I long for these things: To hold your forehead against my lips; to inhale the sweet milk of your breath; to hold your mouth against my body and just once, feel you draw strength from me. From me, who has so little left to give.

Today it is cloudy and there is talk of an approaching typhoon. It seems it will rain soon and the sky is so dark. 

sometimes a stone is just a stone

About a decade ago, I traveled to South Korea with a motherland tour, a group of adult adoptees. The trip, as I recall, was partially sponsored by the South Korean government, as a way to encourage these displaced Koreans to learn about the culture of their homeland. They acknowledged, we were told, the number of Koreans who, through international adoption, were living in other countries. They wanted us to come back, even if only for a visit. 

Who responds to such an invitation?

The ones who are searching. We were a ragtag group. At 29, I was among the oldest in the group of about thirty of us. Most were in their early twenties, the longing visible on their smooth broad faces. I considered myself rather sophisticated in the vicissitudes of love and life at this point, already with a four-year-old daughter, and a failed marriage behind me. So, when one particularly fragile young woman collapsed (from the heat? exhaustion? the sheer emotional weight of such a trip?) I took it upon myself to be a kind of caretaker, sitting with her on the air-conditioned tour bus, holding her head on my lap, stroking her hair, dabbing at her forehead with a cool cloth. 

More than anything, we wanted to feel something

As we were led through a reproduction of a traditional folk village, or to the countryside to visit local schools, or to the stunning Mount Sorak shrouded in mist, we were searching for a thing - that moment at which we could say: Yes, something in my body, in my bones remembers this. This is a part of me. And this, too. 

Is it strange to say I was looking for a kind of closure? A thing that would let me say: Now that I have set foot on this ground, filled my lungs with its air, felt its dirt between my fingers; now, I know something about who I was when I left this place, all those years ago.

About who I am now. About who I might become.

Closure is, of course, an elusive (illusory?) thing. I made lists of the thing I wanted to remember:

The dusty, dry earth of the countryside.

The schoolchildren in their white shirts and blue jumpers, laughing over jumping games during late-morning recess. 

Every woman of an age I thought my mother might be. 

The crowded markets - booths set up like the giant flea market on Sundays at the Yonkers Raceway, a jumble of items laid out on folding tables, waiting for bids. 

The giant urns of kimchee, fermenting.

The young men, passed out and sleeping on benches in the city, after nights of binge drinking. 

The piles of stones along the path up Mount Sorak. Are they trail markers? Are they prayers for the dead? I picked up a stone, add it to the pile. There seemed a solemnity to it, and I wanted to participate, drawn, as I was, to anything that smacked of ritual. 

When I arrived at NY’s LaGuardia airport in March of 1974, I was 2 years and 5 months old. Based, at least, on the estimated date of my birth. Knowing what I know about child development from my own children, I am fairly certain that at 2 years, 5 months, I had language. In the thin file of documents that I have on my adoption, there is a reference to my speaking (“She has a clear voice. She speaks loudly.”). I like to assume that I had attachments - to the foster family in whose care I was placed, but it is difficult to know how long I was there, and whether this family was one of many placements, or a more long-term one, which might support attachment, affection. 

On the trip, we had the opportunity to visit several orphanages and to meet with officials who could help us with a birthparent search. This was optional, and I declined. I may have been the only one who did so. I don’t know, really, why I decided at the time that I was not prepared for that particular journey, but certainly, if given the chance again, I would take it. What did I expect to see? There will be time, I thought. When I am ready, I thought. Or perhaps I had simply grown too attached to my own narrative of how alone I was in the world, how disconnected, even from my immediate past. 

I took photos of the trip - the things we saw, the people we were - and when I look at them now, as when I look at my list, I don’t feel much of anything. I want to read meaning into everything, want it all to be laden, weighty with answers to questions I have not yet even asked about who, and why, and what. 

When I returned, I told stories to my friends, to my family. I told them that there was a kind of power, a kind of magic in standing on that ground, in taking it all in. I may have believed it at the time, may have wanted to believe it. I am sure that the people who love me wanted this to be true as well. A way to ease the burden of the mysteries we all carry. 

Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps it is not the trip itself that matters, or the dusty earth, or the way the sunlight glistened on the blue roof of the country schoolhouse in the late morning, or the stones I warmed in my hands before placing them on a pile and saying a silent prayer for the ancestors I would never know. Perhaps the trip is just as simple as a dot placed on the map of my life, one moment, indistinguishable from the thousands of other moments that together, compose a life.