adoption

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. 

my own mind is a tenement

A woman who lived in the house next door has passed away. We learn this - rather, we deduce it - from a few strange happenings. First, wooden boards are nailed to the windows on the first floor. On the concrete beneath the kitchen window, now boarded shut, someone has written in “R.I.P.” in green chalk. The woman’s mail - a few utility bills, a catalog from the community college, a postcard from the pet supply store - starts showing up, mixed with ours. We find it on the floor of the entry way, where it has been pushed through the slot. By whom? Surely not the mail carrier? And then this morning, I come outside to see moving boxes packed with trash lined up on the sidewalk in front of our house. 

“Who would put trash in front of our house?” M. asks when I tell him about it, later. I say I think it’s all from the woman next door. “I’ll call the sanitation department,” he says. We are advised to leave it there until trash pick-up day. If it is still there after that, call them back, we are told. When I return home, I inspect the trash more closely. Someone has opened one of the boxes, rifled through its contents. There is a paperback book - on how to use Photoshop - on the ground. The cover is bent backward and on the first page, I see the woman’s name written in green ink. The empty box from a video game console. A black plastic trash bag has been ripped open to reveal its contents - a set of old, cloth-bound encyclopedias, the pages brittle and yellow. I am hesitant to move anything. I pile a few small bags that have started to spill out on the sidewalk past the row of boxes. As I take my son’s hand to walk toward the front door, I see the corner of a baking sheet sticking out of one of the boxes. It is bent and rusted. Unusable. The sight of these objects, lying out on the sidewalk, exposed, picked through, makes my stomach hurt.

Question #3: What do you know about the circumstances of your adoption?

“Imagine this,” she says. 

I am sitting in a deep armchair across from a woman in another deep armchair. She smiles at me. 

“Imagine this: she can’t take care of you in the way you need to be taken care of, so she says I love you, but I have to let you go.”

“She doesn’t love me enough,” I say. “If she did, she’d find a way to keep me.”

“So it’s not possible that she simply does not have the capacity, the ability to care for you?”

I shake my head. “She won’t try hard enough. If she loved me enough, she would try.”

“So there are no circumstances under which letting you go would be better?”

“No.”

“And there’s no room, in your view, for her to be herself - flawed, limited, human? It’s just all or nothing for you?”

“Yes,” I say, “exactly.”

I sit in the cafe and try to read, but it is too loud to concentrate. I read the same passage over and over again: “My own mind is a tenement. Some elevators work. There are orange peels and muggings in the hall.”

I gather my things to leave. The afternoon is gray and cool. I walk down the block, feeling dizzy. I hold my arms out a bit to steady myself. At the corner, I turn around and walk back. Then, I sit in my car, stare out the window for several long minutes before heading to my next obligation. 

Question #9: If you had any difficulties that you faced in life, please tell us in details. 

1. When I was ten years old, my father took us to a low-budget, ranch-themed resort. Meals were served in a vast dining room at long tables. It was hot and noisy and everywhere you went, the smell of horse manure and hay lingered. The horse I rode spooked on the trail and ran off ahead. Not far. Not for too long. Just enough to frighten a ten-year-old girl already fearful of her body, hurtling through space. I cried. I clung to the strap of the reins. The palms of my hands smelled like leather, no matter how many times I washed them. 

2. With the money I have saved, I pick out pink-framed sunglasses from the discount store near the beach. There are tiny rhinestones glued across the frames. My mother asks do I want to spend all my money on just that one thing, wouldn’t I like to get something else - a coloring book and crayons? A doll whose eyes open and close? But my mind is made up. I take them to the counter, empty the contents of my tan change purse out onto it. I get a few coins back, put them back in the purse. At the beach, we walk down to the edge, where the sand is wet and warm. Where the waves break on your ankles then pull you back toward the sea. I am in the water up to my knees. I am looking behind me, toward the sand, at my mother, who is approaching. When I turn back to the ocean, I see the wave coming at me, high and fast. It knocks me down. I am sitting in the sand with salt water in my nose, seaweed on my arms. My sunglasses are gone. 

3. As a gift one year, I receive the doll with the eyes that open and close. She has jet black hair. “She looks like you,” the woman - a friend of my mother’s - says, beaming. Hold the doll upright, its eyes are wide open, revealing its blue (“not like you”) eyes. Lay it back and the eyes close. “Shh. She’s sleeping,” the woman whispers, holding a finger to her lips. After a few days of opening and closing, doesn’t one eye start hovering in the half-lidded position, no matter how hard I shake it? I turn it upside to see whether the lid will fall open. It does not. I hide it in my closet, way back in the darkest corner, where at night, in my bed, I imagine it staring out at me through the closed door, one eye open, unblinking, the other in eerie half-sleep. 

In the evening, my friend comes over and we sit at my kitchen table, drinking wine and playing records. I put out some cheese and crackers and we eat and laugh and re-fill our glasses. She tells me a story about a man she once thought she loved that makes me cry. Then another one that makes me laugh. My daughter walks in and we chat with her. She humors us for a time, then goes back to her projects. 

And this is the way we pass the hours - turning over the records when one side ends, pouring wine until the bottle is empty.

if everything goes according to my plan

I wake ravenous this morning, which is not, typically, a good sign. Too much hunger too early in the day suggests a day of disappointments.

Yesterday, a day of indulgences – late brunch with L. at a restaurant we both love. There is a wait, of course, and we squeeze into a bench by the bar and sip coffees. It’s been a while since we’ve spent time together. She’s walked the three miles from her house and she tells me, “I was on the phone the whole time – fighting with my mother.”

“What are you fighting about?” I ask.

“Oh, everything. What are we not fighting about? My parents – they don’t live in reality,” she says, as she unwinds her scarf from around her neck, stuffs it in her purse. “They don’t follow any sort of logic. They are just completely illogical.”

We laugh. She goes on to explain the house she wants to buy, that they are buying with her, and the negotiations of these shared financial decisions. There are renovations to be done. Walls to knock down. A roof – literally – to be raised.

“The good news is,” she gushes, “ that the contractor is unbelievably hot, and if everything goes according to my plan, he’ll marry me and we’ll have babies together and spend our lives buying houses to renovate.”

I spend the early morning in the garden, raking out last year’s dead leaves and weeds. This early in the season, I am ruthless – pruning back the rose bushes, pulling out big clumps of the irises that will take over the beds by mid-June, thinning the hydrangea. I work for hours, fill dozens of bags with garden debris. Back inside, I observe the familiar blisters that have appeared on my fingers and my forearms now bear the tell-tale signs of my carelessness with the beach roses. I go back outside, survey the yard again. There is visible evidence of my efforts, but there is still so much to be done. I feel suddenly and overwhelmingly weary.

When L. and I are finally seated, we order big dishes and talk loudly. It is hard to hear each other over the din. She’s come back from a trip to New York to visit her man for his birthday. They have a drink together before dinner, but he has plans for dinner with his soon-to-be-ex-wife.

“He had dinner with her for his birthday?” I ask. “But they’re done, right? I mean, it’s over?”

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I think she just felt badly than he didn’t have any other plans. I mean, I don’t think he really understood that I was there to see him. I don’t think he really got that.”

I nod, bite the inside of my cheek hard.

“Anyway, tell me about your trip,” she says, as she flags over the waitress for more coffee. “I haven’t seen you since San Francisco.”

In the afternoon, I am walking through campus, and I notice a man who seems familiar, but it takes me a while to remember how I know him. Finally, it comes to me: A librarian! From my days spent in the carrels on the fourth floor of the university library. His silent figure a frequent presence moving through the aisles. Or downstairs at the reference desk. Or hovering behind circulation. It’s been at least twenty years now and he is showing his age. His hair is pale, thin, gray. It is hard to watch him as he makes his way up the hill. He walks hunched over, slowly, his legs bowed.

Seeing this man, watching him take his uncomfortable steps uphill, this man whose name – if I ever knew, I have long since forgotten – makes me swallow hard, repeatedly, involuntarily. It is not, after all, the people with whom I share my daily life – my family, my friends – who can show me the passage of time. We are aging together, nearly invisibly to each other. It is this librarian, who in my memory has been static, symbolic; it is he who reminds me that the months and years pile up relentlessly on us all, whether or not we are paying close attention.

At night, we go to a dinner party and we spend the early part of the evening introducing ourselves to people we’ve never met, despite all our years of living in this tiny city. When dinner is served, though, we tuck ourselves into a corner, M. and me., and quietly acknowledge the pleasure of being alone together for a few minutes – even as the rest of the party swirls and chatters around us. We lean in close to each other, creating, with our bodies, a little private floating island. “That dress is amazing,” he says. “You look so beautiful,” he says. Before I can respond, a man approaches us, says to M., “I think we’ve met – you look so familiar,” and with that, we rejoin the party, leave the island behind – to revisit, perhaps at another time. 

Today is the anniversary of the date of my adoption. We called it that – an “anniversary” – in my family and when I was a child, I remember the date being commemorated every year with a cake and a small gift. At some point, the celebrations stopped, but I don’t remember when or why. It is not a tradition that I carried into adulthood, and I don’t know that anyone – except perhaps my aunt – notes the date. This year, it seems important to me to mark it, although I don’t know why or how. Perhaps it is enough to acknowledge it here.

briefly introduce yourself

My friends come over and we open a bottle of wine, but barely, among the three of us, make it through. I perch on the coffee table to sit close enough to them, both on the small couch by the window, to whisper when need be. There is no one else in the house, at the beginning, but there are some things that we discuss that require a level of discretion.

The work, our jobs. We always talk about them first, taking up, as they do, so much of our time. T. speaks of people I dont know and occasionally, I will interrupt and say: Now who is Laura? or Joe does what there? and she will tell me who they are and what they do little thumbnail sketches of the roles they play in the grand workplace drama.

T. is quiet, says its been a busy start to the year. Big shifts, she says, running her hand through her hair. Like lots of big things are changing. I nod, yes, I feel that too.

I have the tendency to want to track my state of mind at intervals that are too close together to be meaningful. I liken it to weighing myself every couple hours to see whether I have lost a pound: The constant How are you, really? that we ask each other. Wanting more than the cheerful Fine, good. And you? that our public days require, we have perhaps gone too far in the other direction, wanting more, asking too much, too frequently so that one finds oneself caught up in a loop of compulsive self-concern. How am I really? Am I fine? And what about now? And now?

I assemble the documents and the photos that I have, prepare to send them to the faceless social worker who is on the other side of the world, waiting. Or at least, I like to think of her as waiting. Sitting in front of her glowing screen, refreshing it periodically to see what has arrived. And what then will she see from me? A few photos of a chubby toddler in too-short dresses. A copy of the profile that her own agency sent with me that bore the name they gave me. (The childs name was given by the Oprhans Home as Mi Jin KIM, which means: Mi-beautiful, Jin-true. KIM-a most common family name.)

And the page of unfulfilled desires.

It turns out to be more difficult to introduce myself in my two-inch textbox than to explain what I want them to do. I can guess what they are looking for in the terse Briefly introduce yourself, and I oblige by providing the simplest data points: I am married with two children. I run an agency that gives grants in the humanities. I graduated from college, then graduate school. My parents are deceased.

This is as it should be, I am sure, but I admit that I consider another kind of introduction altogether: There are mornings that I wake from anxious sleep with my jaw aching. At stop lights, I find myself tearful for reasons I cannot explain. I am restless, melancholy. I long for things that I cannot name.

The other night, we watch a movie about a man who has nothing to lose. His character is conveyed primarily through his stony silence and the way in which, when the need arises, he kills man after man with steely-eyed unflinching determination. His jacket still wet with blood, he turns to his love interest wide-eyed, waif-like and tells her he will protect her. We have watched their love develop through a series of slow-motion scenes in which they sit silently in a car, driving; then silently near a stream while her son gathers sticks; then silently as he carries her son to his bed. Their love is all big eyes and wordless gazes. Despite this thinness of character development and motivation, I for my part am utterly taken in. This fantasy of two people knowing each other without speaking is just too delicious not to indulge and I imagine that after the son is put to bed, the two of them make wordless love, throwing themselves together again and again as night shadows give way to early light.

I am looking for a way to understand the fantasy. The imagined life I could have had, the imagined people my parents are. On the form, I say: I would like to meet them, if they are willing. I would like to sit across a table from them, share a meal. I would like to touch their faces. I would like to hold their hands in my own.

My friend asks: How do you picture your mother?  What if she is sick or poor? Or crazy?

I admit this gives me pause. In my fantasy, she is well and beautiful. A sadness about her, perhaps, a weariness. “Or what if she has this whole other family that doesn’t know about you?”

On the form, I write this and it is only as I am writing it that I realize it is true: I am not asking for anything of them. I know they may have families of their own. I don’t want to disrupt their lives.

The fantasy is this: that we will see each other and know each other instantly. That without words, without language, we will recognize something deep in each other - something true and transcendent. That the love will be there, instantly - vibrant, thrilling, alive. That she will say: My whole life, I have waited for you, for this. You are beautiful. You are perfect. You will never be alone again. You will never know longing because I am with you. You belong to me.

But that is as far as the fantasy ever gets. Cue sunset. Cue credits. End scene.

I am standing as I often am, in front of the sink. The endless loading and unloading of the dishwasher. The stacking of plates. The washing of pans, of countertops. M. is at the coffee maker. My daughter at her desk. My son at the kitchen table, drawing scene after scene of his imaginary worlds. Once the coffee is started, M. comes over with a towel. Dries the pans in the dish rack. He puts them away, asks: Do you want some music?

“Yes, please.”

“What do you want?”

“Surprise me.”

He pulls out an old record from the little collection we’re amassing and as it starts up, the low hum of it, I think about what this might look like to my mother, my father. How if they could peer through the window at this moment, could they take comfort in what they see? The love, visible - even when we ourselves don’t see it.

In the washing and drying of dishes, there is love. In the quiet burble of the coffee brewing, there is love. In the small hands of our son, moving his markers across the wide white pages, there is love. And I wonder how it is that I have spent my whole life longing for what has been here, what has always been here, when I stand still long enough to see it.

I would like you to tell them this:

That I am happy. That I have a life that is full and beautiful. 

That I think of them every day.

That I hope they are well, that they are happy. That I want them to be happy. 

That I am so grateful for everything they did and for everything they tried to do, to give me the life that I have.

That I love them.

That even if we never meet, I will always, always love them.

That they are with me, in my heart, and I will hold them there - for the rest of my life.

written on the body

Temperatures dropped overnight and despite my body’s protestations, I throw myself into the cold before the rest of the house begins stirring. I know the route so well, have worn this path into the rhythms of my heart, my breath: the broken pavement in front of the transition home, the honeysuckle now dormant, the bathtub madonnas majestic, the loose gravel at the corner across from the skate park. In front of the double-decker by the high school, a woman in a black parka holds her dog on a leash. She nods, I nod back. The wind stings my eyes. I tug my hat down as far as it will go.

There are steps I could be taking. There are forms I could be filling out, sending across the world. Over the weekend, I get an email from the adoption woman. Have you reached out to___? Was she able to tell you anything? I have not responded. I have not reached out. Several times since I saw her note, I have begun composing the excuses in my head, but I have avoided sitting down, writing it.

In my defense, it has been a busy weekend – a visiting friend, a birthday dinner for M., a hundred tasks that required my attention. But it is also true that I am standing here, staring at the door now ajar and I recognize – as I suppose I always have – that just because a door is open does not mean that I have to walk through it.

“Of course you do,” my friend says over coffee. “Follow this where it leads.”

It’s probably not going to lead anywhere, I hear myself saying. Just a lot of dead ends.

“You don’t know this,” she says. “You can’t possibly know.”

“The language barrier alone,” I begin, “there are no real files… It’s not like it is now.”

She does not respond, lets the whiny sound of my own voice hang there between us.

“I’m very attached to my narrative, you know.”

She nods, reaches her hand out to touch mine. “I know.”

As we are readying to go out for breakfast, I feel something pop out of place in my knee, and the sudden pain causes me to crumple to the ground. I clutch the offending knee and M. rushes over, hovers, reaches for me. I tell him there is nothing he can do except to stand back a bit, as I fight back angry tears. It’s been getting worse, this knee, and M. shakes his head at me as I gradually extend my leg. Whatever had been misaligned has now righted itself and at full extension, my leg is fine again.

Over breakfast, he says: “Now, will you please, please go to the doctor?” I assure him that I will.

“I’ll go, but they’re not going to be able to do anything.”

“Well, why don’t we let the doctor tell us that?”

“It’s either going to be some terrible surgery, or they’ll have to give me some injection that I don’t want.”

He laughs, says, “How about we role play this a bit? You be me, and I’ll be you.” He cocks his head to one side, raises the pitch of his voice: “I don’t want to go to the doctor because the thing that will help me to walk properly is too complicated. So, I’ll just ignore it and keep falling.”

I reach for his hand. “But you’ll carry me around when I can’t walk any more, won’t you?”

He’s done with his impersonation. He shakes his head. “Nope. You’re on your own. It’s a cold cruel world out there, and it’s every man for himself.”

For several years as a child, I danced competitively. Irish stepdancing, of all things. Soft and hard shoe and recently, a friend who had come back from seeing a performance of stepdancing observed: “All that stomping must have been very hard on your knees.” I had not put this together before, blaming my weak right knee on a fall while running decades ago, and later, falling again skiing.

I think about my son, who sits frog-legged, his feet pointing out behind him and how his doctor once told us that position puts undue strain on the knees. It seems hard to imagine that these things we do in childhood can have such lasting consequences in our later years.

“Your body remembers everything you do to it,” the occupational therapist we were seeing for my son once said. “Every bump and bruise, every fall, all those years of wearing high-heeled shoes – all of it.” W. is sitting on a wide swing, suspended a few feet off the ground. She is throwing bean bags at him and he is trying to catch them, giggling. He misses one. She retrieves it from where it has fallen and throws it at him again. She says: “Everything you do leaves its mark.”

When we were growing up, my sister and I shared a small bedroom and for many years, slept on a trundle bed. There was a slightly smaller bed on a wheeled drawer that when not in use, could be rolled beneath the larger bed. We often left this drawer open, though, and one day, we were playing a game that consisted of running from the hallway, bouncing on the lower bed and landing on the top one. I ran but didn’t clear the bottom completely, and banged my shin hard on the edge of the wooden drawer, scraping off several layers of skin. I bled profusely. The scar is still visible.

Years later, readying for a high school winter dance, I was shaving my legs with a pink disposable razor, rushing. I am careless and the blade catches on my ankle bone. I come away with a three-inch long strip of skin hanging. As the blood dries, it adheres my pantyhose to my skin. An angry scar runs along the tendon.

The worst scar, though is on my left shoulder. An immunization gone badly. My mother would examine it periodically, mutter angrily about the imagined incompetence of the doctor in Korea. “How could he have botched it so badly? Did he try to inject you with a chopstick?”

There is a tiny round scar on my right hand where I burned myself with a cigarette. A long scratch just above my left knee from when I insisted on climbing over the chain-link fence of my high school friend M.’s backyard, rather then waiting for him to come open the gate. A crescent moon shape on the first fingertip of my left hand where I sliced a bit of it off once, chopping carrots.

I believe that constitutes – in its entirety – the catalog of my scars. A cautious child, a tentative adolescent, I have never trusted my body to do much. I did not climb trees, or ride bicycles, or jump from the high diving board. I did not hang from monkey bars or sled down the steep hills. I skated when I had to, at grade-school birthday parties, but slowly – hovering near the railing all the time. I know the way recklessness can be marked on the body – the scars and the broken bones – but I wonder how apprehension engraves itself? Where on the body do we carry the traces of the failure to act, of fear?

More than a decade ago, the name of the other woman – the Korean woman who ran the orphans’ home, who facilitated the adoption from there – found its way to me in a news article circulated by some adoptee email list. She was celebrating her eightieth birthday. She was interviewed about the hundreds of placements she had helped to make over so many years. I emailed the newspaper. I got a name and a phone number for her adult son who was caring for her. “Call him,” I was told. “He can help you.”

I cannot explain why I did not call then. Any better than I can explain why I let the form from the agency sit on my desk, untouched. The clock is ticking, I know. None of us is getting any younger.

Maybe today. 

tell us what you would like us to do

For as long as I can remember, I have carried with me the names of the two women who facilitated my adoption one in Korea and one in New York. The other day, I found the New York woman in a search that, according to google, took all of 28 seconds. A brief note of introduction composed and in minutes I had done something that I had chosen not to do, all this time.

Within an hour, a warm response. Some words of encouragement, another name, a phone number. A door that had appeared closed now nudged open just wide enough to let in a sliver of light. Write to the agency, she says. Dont hesitate.

From the agency, I receive an email. I am your social worker, she says, and attaches a form. Please fill this out. A single page. The instructions read: Briefly introduce yourself, and then a two-inch text box. Another text box, about the same size: Tell us what you would like us to do.

The woman tells me about her own daughter, adopted a few years before me. She is now a professor of the humanities at a large prestigious university. Ivy League degrees. Several scholarly books. And she mentions a colleague of hers, who also adopted a child during this time. You could call her, she says, but adds that the woman and her daughter are not on speaking terms. This woman whose name I have known all my life, who is now in her 80s and still working, writes, On my way to work now to be continued. She is a realtor. She sells homes. 

She asks me to send a current photo, so I do. When she responds with another bit of information, she adds at the end of her note, parenthetically, You are beautiful. Accustomed as I have become to exclamation points and emoticons and symbols, the simplicity and directness of the words on my screen seem less like a compliment than a reproach. I cannot explain this reaction.

What will you find out, my friend asks. What do you want to learn?

It seems worthy of note that these questions are asked of me as if I were limited only by my own desires. Tell us what you would like us to do.

What I would like you to do? I have forty years worth of unmet desires. I may need a larger text box.

Stopped at the light downtown after dropping my daughter off at the train station, I recognize a man crossing the street, wearing a backpack. It takes me several moments to place where I have seen him before and then I remember that he works at one of the office buildings nearby. I see him when I am there for meetings and we smile, nod at each other in the hallway or coming in or out of the elevator. Me, carrying notebooks and folders, him with the tools of building maintenance a trolley cart piled with keys and electrical cords, or a trash bin on wheels. I watch as he crosses and heads toward the office building and wonder where he is coming from, on foot? The building has its own parking lot, so its hard to imagine he has left his car somewhere. The bus stop is not in the direction from which he is walking. Its possible he lives downtown, in the apartments that were built behind the mall. Perhaps he lets his dog run in the narrow fenced-in strip of grass alongside the parking lot.

I decide that no, I dont see him living downtown, but rather I picture a modest ranch house in the suburbs perhaps in Lincoln or Smithfield or North Providence a few blocks from a small park where on Saturday mornings when it is not raining, he takes his young daughter for a walk after breakfast.  

The light changes and I move forward with the rest of the traffic. I hold this image the man, his ranch house; his walks with his daughter, her hair in long braids down her back, the two holding hands until I park my car, ready myself for the day.

Tell us what you would like us to do.

There is a photograph of me, in Korea. I am sitting cross-legged on the ground next to a shallow basin of water. There is a white toy boat floating in it. Nearby, a woman in a blue hanbok squats. Her hair is pulled up in a bun. She is wearing black-rimmed glasses. She is facing me, away from the camera. She is wearing flat black shoes. Her left hand is extended, offering me a cracker. I would like you to tell me the name of this woman.

Another photograph: I am sitting in a small wicker chair. One of its legs is broken. I am holding my ear with my right hand. To my left, there is a young girl. She looks like perhaps she could be six or seven. She is wearing a light blue sleeveless dress that seems like it could be too small for her too short at least, but she is kneeling, so it is difficult to know for sure. A barrette above her left ear. Her right hand is resting on the back of the chair that I am sitting in. I would like you to find this girl and tell me, is she well? Is she happy? Does she remember me?

At the end of the day, I wander up and down the street, waiting for M. and my son and our friend, E., visiting from out of town. We’ll have dinner at the brightly-lit Korean restaurant where we’ll eat from hot stone pots. W. will draw in a notebook that we have brought for him. We will hold small bowls of soup in our hands and let the steam rise to warm our faces. E. will tell us about his children, his work. M. will smile at me across the table. Outside, people will walk up and down the street in twos and threes, peering in the restaurant windows, making their choices.

Night will fall here as the sun rises in Korea. And eventually, we will all make our way home.

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.  

this is your house, this is your bed, this is where you live

Today we leave for Paris.

I woke this morning, my jaw aching from clenching so tightly through the night. I am not at my best, traveling, and I am a bit anxious, on edge. I make checklists, collect the names of the places my friends have told me to visit. But still, I feel unsettled. Like tragedy could befall us at any moment.

After my mother died, I walked around with a sense of doom – the shadow cast by our own too-human fragility. I would enter a crowded place and instead of the people I saw there, milling about, I would see only the sadness of the loved ones they would inevitably leave behind. The unimaginable hole that would be left in their absence. As the weeks and months passed, there was some relief from the immediacy of that feeling – that anticipatory grief, sharpened by panic. But it took some time to see the living again after seeing only ghosts.

In the weeks leading up to this, I talk with my friends about the panic. It will be amazing, wonderful, memorable, they all say. You will have a great time. There will be no time for panic, they say. It is Paris!

I believe this, mostly. I believe that I will let the magic of the city of lights envelop me. That I will throw myself headlong into it, arms open. Heart open.

But the thing is this: It is also true that I will be fearful and that ghostly panic will be a quiet companion.

Another thing I have learned in my fortieth year is that many things – conflicting, paradoxical, baffling things – can be true at once.

I have to imagine that in preparation for the long flight to New York from Seoul, I was told to expect many things. A new family, a new life – wonderful things. Glittering, hopeful things. And when I arrived in New York I can only guess that it seemed something of a dream: the city aglow – the buzz and hum of the airport terminal. The smiling, eager faces that greeted me, the Korean words spoken, halting and unfamiliar in western mouths: We are so glad you are here. We brought this for you. We have waited so long for you.

What do you say to a two-year old about to take the biggest trip of her life, one from which she will never truly be able to return? It will be wonderful. You will be so happy. You will have such a beautiful life.

My wise friend L. asked me some time ago what was I afraid of, about going to Paris. I thought for a while, and said, half-joking: That I might not want to come back.

I have thought about this many times in the recent weeks. About what I meant when I said this. About how it felt true, or nearly true when I said it. What I fear is that when I go to a place, a place that promises so much, that I will inevitably think: Yes, here is where I am supposed to be. What I have been waiting so long for is this: Now, my life can begin. A new life. A life filled with light.

And that the people and places and things I have loved in the life I left behind will over time, fade from memory. That I will try, perhaps to reach out to them, but they will be like ghosts.

When I arrive in New York, my new parents greet me with the words they have learned from the documents they have been sent. They tell me: I am your mother. I am your father. You are our daughter.

And later: This is your house. This is your bed. This is where you live.

And I can’t help but wonder, how did I make sense of this? How was it possible to understand these things that were true but also not true?

We haven’t yet packed. I have my checklists though and now, as the light breaks through to start the day, I will consult them. I will make piles of the things we need to bring. The sweaters and the shoes. The books. The maps. We will drive to the airport and talk about the things we want to see, the things we want to do. How wonderful it will be. How long we have waited for this. I will do my best to leave my ghosts behind. I suppose we can all catch up when I return. 

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. 

finders, keepers

What do you think it would be like, I am asked, to be found?

What a question to ask, to consider. In the act of being found, there is the suggestion, is there not, that you are not where you are supposed to be.

If you are found, maybe you were lost.

If you are found, maybe you will be taken back.

Once as a child, I got separated from my mother in a crowd. I don’t remember where, exactly, but we were packed tightly, and there wasn’t much room to move around. I was holding her hand, and then I was not. I was moved along in the crush of bodies and I remember reaching out a bit blindly. I saw the yellow sleeve of a shirt. I remembered my mother to be wearing yellow and so, I made my way toward that. I grabbed at the arm in the yellow sleeve. I held it, brought it to my cheek, kissed it, clutched it. I felt the arm stiffen, pull away. I looked up and it was not my mother.

Can you be found if you don’t know that you are lost?

I am thinking still about the birthparent search and my own long resistance to it. Perhaps it is this: I don’t want to search. I want only to be found. I will stay here, you come find me. A children’s game. Here I am. Discover me.

Close your eyes. Count to 10. Find me.

There is the danger, of course, of not being compelling enough a subject to be sought, found. I watch my son play with his friend in the park. They lean against a tree to count, and hide in bushes, squat down behind low stone walls. After a while, inevitably, one of them will lose interest after several rounds of hiding, seeking and hiding again. One will count, begin searching then be distracted by a bird, or a tricycle, or a pile of sticks. And the other one, in time, will come bursting out of his hiding place, eyes wide and wet, on the verge of tears: Why didn’t you come find me?

To find requires intense curiosity, interest. Single-mindedness of purpose. Focus. To find requires dedication. An urgency. A kind of love.

Many years ago, shortly after my divorce: I had just taken Z. to spend the month with her father in New York, as per the terms of our agreement. I had never before been separated from her for this long.

It was summer. The heat was oppressive. It was difficult to sleep. All the windows were open wide. In the middle of the night, M. and I were awoken by the sound of a baby crying. We sat up in a panic. The crying – heart-wrenching, relentless – went on for a long time. We got up, put on our shoes. We walked outside in the dark night, trying to follow the sound. Our searching was so cautious, so tentative: we did not know that we wanted to find what we thought we might. I thought the worst: Trash can. Dumpster. In a basket on someone’s front porch with a note. Our hearts raced. We will find you, I called out silently to this child. I will find you.

After a time, we called the police. The baby was safe in his home with two weary parents who were desperate for sleep.

I went back to bed, shaken, bereft. I stayed awake for what seemed like a very long time.

Back in the park, there is that wonderful moment of discovery. My son’s friend, alerted by the sound of muffled giggles, will peek around a tree, and then my son will pop out. You found me! They embrace briefly, awkwardly, shuffling into each other, all limbs. And then, they will do it again, the roles reversed.

There is that kind of being found: You know that you are being sought. You can leave clues. You can peek out to check that the searcher is still there. Wave your arm a bit. Let him see your sleeve.

I think there is another kind of finding, of being found. You don’t know what you are looking for. You don’t know that you are being sought. A kind of stumbling into. Falling in love, I think, can be a little like this.

Finders, keepers. 

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.