Born to be wild

May 9th, 2012

I remember the day I first discovered the magic of Maurice Sendak.  Intrigued by the dozing monster on the cover of this slim volume tucked away in my elementary school library, I pulled its taped spine from the shelf and cracked opened the well-worn pages.

Trouble begins on the first page. A little boy in a costume, acting naughty, goes to his room without dinner. Then, strange things happen. Trunks and foliage sprout from the floorboards and bedpost, stretch skyward, knocking away walls and windows.  The ceiling retracts, exposing stars and clouds suspended above “the world all around.”

What luck: A private boat with his name on it sails him far away across a choppy sea to a land of monsters, which he tames with his staring trick.

What an amazing — and scary — thing to have happen to your bedroom, especially when you are a kid in trouble. Nothing like that ever happened to me. The story reminded me of a time when I was young and I thought I’d have a solo adventure in the woods. When I was too far to run to safety or call for help, I heard the sloshing and branch-snapping of a large animal in the swamp. I stood still, heart bouncing in my chest, breathing heavily but quietly, until the sounds receded. Bear? Deer? Swamp monster? I’m sure I couldn’t tame it with my staring trick, but I did wish for a magic vehicle to sweep me away.

Much like that swamp encounter, my heart races as I thumb through the pages of “Where the Wild Things Are” ignoring the words at first in favor of drinking in the mesmerizing illustrations, which are neither too cheerful nor overly terrifying. As I sit cross-legged on the little carpet, I flip back to the beginning over and over, to carefully study the metamorphosis from tame to wild to tame again. I decide which monster is scariest: it’s a tie between the one with the rooster beak and the one with the bull horns.

There is danger but there also is power in this tale. I believe in monsters of all shapes. Some live in the shadows behind the attic door in my upstairs bedroom, others lurk under the bed. Some live in the bright light of day, visible to all, but only scary to me. I have no power.

It didn’t take long for someone else in the library that day to notice I was hoarding “Where the Wild Things Are.” He stomped over and demand I turn it over for his perusal. Reluctantly, I handed it to him and watched as a crowd of boys gathered around to follow Max’s journey. From that day on, it became a game of who’d get to the book first.

I’m sure I thought about Max’s adventure that night as I lay under covers, gazing at the sturdy walls, wondering if they had the potential to transform into something wild, or if my roof might retract to show the heavens.

I thought about it years later when I had my first child and the book was gifted to us. She loved it so much she called it “Wild Rumpus.” I’d read it and we’d jump up and down in her room, roaring our terrible roars and gnashing our terrible teeth, making our own wild rumpus. I still have the framed print I made for her third birthday. It now hangs in our downstairs bath, an homage to the power of  imagination.  My husband, also a fan, brought to our marriage two copies of the book, along with soft cover collection of Sendak’s art.

So it was with surprise today that I learned Sendak died. I wasn’t sure I knew he was alive.  NPR aired an interview with Terry Gross from the ’80s.  He was a brusque, to-the-point kind of guy. I listened with pleasure and interest.  l liked how his mind worked, how he marched to a different beat.

A little reminder to us all: our children are wild and they have incredible imaginations. Let us tame the former to reasonable standards and the latter to no extent at all.


April 1st, 2012

When we meet at a formica table in that echoing hall, I do all the talking. He sits in silence, studying something in his lap, his hands neatly folded and out of trouble. I’ve known him only a week. He is an unexpected mid-year replacement. The last relationship spun far out of my reach; I wonder where this one will lead.

In spite of the sudden change, I find this new one’s demeanor soothing to my psyche, which is in recovery. How could the last one, who was such a charmer, have been so unreachable? That blinding white smile. That great booming laugh. Those linebacker shoulders and arms that pulled you in but never answered your questions. Not a one.

Minutes into our second meeting in the hall, the new guy begins fidgeting in his chair as if he’s sitting on something alive. Every noise, passing person, draws his eyes away from me. Last week’s silence was really a swollen reservoir on the brink of bursting. Today, the dam gives out, gushing thoughts, feelings, ideas, opinions, and how much he likes robots. He really likes those robots.

Touching his hand lightly, I ask him to look at me. I ask him to listen.

Let’s make this work, I whisper. Let’s be a team.

He stops. His brown eyes lock with mine.

Is this going to work? I ask myself. Will I be able to shine a bright light through the fog?

I look away and count to 10, studying the beige ceramic tiles racing toward a vanishing point. I give him time to compose himself, to settle his hands and feet.

“I have something for you,” he says.

He leans to the side, digs into his navy blue pants pocket and pulls out a small, opalescent object. He sets it on the table.

“What is it?” I say.

“It’s a gem. I found it on the gym floor. It’s for you.”

You know what? I’ve been at this for almost three years now, tutoring children who, if they had a chance and a prayer, could work their way through the dense fog and shape something of their lives. I hope they do with all the hope in the world. I hope in spite of the odds against them.

I pick up the gem, which is really a sweater button, but I’m not going to say anything to him about that, and tuck it in my pocket.

“Thank you.”

He nods.

“You know what?”

He shakes his head, brows lifting in anticipation.

“You are the gem. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

A book of a different cover

December 31st, 2011

by zitona via flickr

I went to the library the other day.

I walked away with two books for me, four for my girl, and a life lesson tucked in my pocket.

So, here’s how it happened: I was hoping to find a room full of children to occupy my youngest daughter, who’s on winter break from school and bored. Instead, I found one woman and one child in a children’s department roaring with silence.

First thought: Oh, look at the cute little blond girl with the Asian woman. She’s the nanny.

Second thought: Shame. Shame. Bad. Bad. As a caucasian mother of an Asian child, where do I get off jumping to conclusions?  I hate it when strangers give us the once-over and draw conclusions about our family dynamic. Why judge at all? Yet, there it was, a judgment.

Third Thought: Truth is, I live in an area where it is fairly common to find nannies and au pairs taking their charges to the library for story time. Many times I’ve started talking to who I thought was the mother only to have her  wave off my questions explaining: “I’m the nanny.” Sometimes that means: No further questions.

Fourth thought (after I learned they were mother and daughter): We are the exact opposite, yet we have much in common.  Although I didn’t ask, I’ll bet she gets a fair share of nosy questions and double-takes about her family dynamic.

Then I stopped thinking and started talking.

It began like this:

Is your  daughter from China?” the woman said from across the room.

Yes,” I said.

I am from China,” she said, moving closer and pulling up a chair.

This opened the gates to a flood of questions and answers: What province in China? What city? How long have you been in America? Does your daughter speak Chinese? What is your name in Chinese? What do you do for Chinese New Year?

Before long, we were deep in stories of China, raising multi-cultural children, the best Chinese markets in the neighborhood, and other moms-of-school-aged-children stuff.

At one point, our girls mistook the library for a playground and began running and shrieking between the stacks. The librarian on duty quickly stepped in. I’m sure she had an awkward moment when she attempted to match girl to mother. At first she directed my daughter to the Chinese mother and the blond girl to me, then sensing an error in judgment, quickly switched the girls again.

There was a time when that move would have bothered me deeply. But today, we exchanged knowing glances and shared a good laugh. We had a bonding moment: this wonderful woman from Beijing, me, our two girls and a big empty room filled with books.

Then the two of us mothers gathered our things,  slipped into our jackets, and headed our separate ways. She, a dark-haired woman with almond eyes and a yellow-haired child, and I, an American woman with a Chinese-born daughter.

Two books who cannot be judged by our covers.



November 29th, 2011

Photo by Shirley McShane Sillars


My car trunk is brimming with things I don’t need.

My baby is no longer a baby.

My house is cluttered.

My neck is bare on this blustery morning.

I’m on my way to purge the trappings of a babyhood gone by.

Along the way I meet a woman with a beautiful scarf.

It is so beautiful I stop to tell her how much I like it.

So she unwinds it from around her neck, unfurling its swirled colorfulness. It’s like a great butterfly flapping about  in this autumn landscape.

Keep it, she says.

Oh, no, I couldn’t, I reply.

You must have it, she insists, it complements your dress.

We dance this way a few times before I lift it from her open hands.

An unexpected outcome.

Awkwardly I cradle its cottony softness. I listen as this woman tells me the story of the scarf.

She created it and many others. She sells them.  She has so many scarves, giving one away is nothing.

What’s your craft, she asks, because these days it seems everyone has some special gift.

I’m not sure yet, I admit.

We part with a handshake and a promise that I will visit her store. As I walk to my car I slip the wings of turquoise, indigo and emerald  over my shoulders. The colors caress my neck and cheeks as the wind tugs the scarf’s fringed ends.

On the way to the community outreach center in a scrappy part of Detroit, I steal glances of it in the mirror while stopped at red lights.

As I heft the stroller, car seat, safety gates, and bags of odds and ends onto the curb, the wind slaps my hair and face. I pull the scarf tighter around my neck, up to my chin.

It’s not that I needed another scarf. I have a closet full, a veritable rainbow of neck coverings. But I don’t have a scarf like this one.

This is an extravagance. This is a serendipitous scarf.

I start thinking about giving spontaneously. It’s one thing to hand off used items to charity. It’s quite another to relinquish something new and hand-made. I consider the idea that I am free advertising for her work. I also acknowledge that I meet creators of  beautiful things all the time and I don’t walk away with freebies.

I think some more about how much easier it is to give than it is to receive. Or is it the other way around?

It’s hard to receive randomly, to quiet the barrage of inner questions that follow the gifting moment.

I wonder what of mine I will give to a stranger.

My trunk is empty.

My heart is warm.

My mind is racing.


There it is

October 26th, 2011

Overheard at the local campaign office where I’ve been volunteering:

A middle-aged man walks in, asks for some information about the candidate. After he’s handed materials and leafs through them, he tells the volunteer that his biggest worry is voter apathy.

The volunteer offers a number of ways in which this man can help combat voter apathy.

Would he like to canvass neighborhoods?

Hmmm….. no, he says, shaking his head.

Would he like to work the phone banks?

Oh, no, he says, shaking his head a little faster,  I couldn’t do that.

Would he like to volunteer for a number of jobs on Election Day or the three days preceding it?  There are a number of things to do: distribute fliers with voter information, serve as a greeter at polling places, or donate food and/or beverages to the campaign office?

Nah… I don’t really like to get involved, he says and leaves the office.

Volunteer turns on her heels and throws her hands in the air.

There it is.

Break-up song

September 27th, 2011

by khrawlings via creative commons


The signs of trouble are always right in front of me. Do I see them? Or do I choose ignorance?

In this relationship, our time together grows shorter with the passing of each hour. Sometimes my love slips out the door shortly after dinner. The bloom of our love fades by the day, from the vibrant green of infatuation to the faded gold, red and brown of neglect. Our once-solid foundation hangs on a frayed thread.

Each year Summer and I break up as intensely as  a first love. Yet each year I find a rebound pretty fast.

Autumn is cool. He’s colorful and fun. But Autumn is more of a whirlwind romance. He blows into town on a tropical depression, sucker-punching Summer to the sidelines. Autumn takes over in earnest, rearranging the landscape and lighting to his tastes. And just as we’re getting comfortable with each other, drunk on cider and doughnuts, playing dress-up and overindulging in sweets, he slips away in the night, leaving behind a note scribbled in frost:

“Watch out for Winter; she can be a bitch.”



August 12th, 2011
Photo by Shirley McShane Sillars

During a much-needed night out with wine, food, and good conversation I learned that the A word came up with one of the families in our neighborhood.

Adoption arose as part of a larger context, one encircling the areas of family resemblance, dominant traits, and personal uniqueness. It seems too complex for the preschool set, but now is the time when our children’s eyes open even wider to notice such things as tallness, blondeness, bigness, and differentness.

Specifically, the question of what makes boys different from girls, and how African-American kids in the class look different from the Caucasian kids led to how some families are tall and thin and some are short and wide and how some kids have two daddies or two mommies or some other defining trait.

“Like your friend,” the mother explained to my daughter’s playmate. “You’ve noticed she looks different from her mother. That’s because she’s adopted.”

“She doesn’t look different from her mom,” my daughter’s friend insisted.

“Well, yes, she was born in China. She is Chinese,” the mom continued.

Noooo,” the young friend asserted, shaking her head. “She looks just like her mom.”

My heart warmed as I listened to this story.

That is the sweetest thing.

It never occurred to me that we could be regarded in that way, even if it is through the rose-colored lens of youth.

This is, of course, the portrait of our love for each other; we are blind to our differences. I think my kindergartener has my husband’s eyes and disposition. I know she has my penchant for perfection.  I don’t know where she ends and I begin.

When I look at my girl’s smooth cheeks, inky black eyes, and cupid’s bow mouth, I see our history reaching all the way back to that smoky, crowded government office in Nanchang, China, when I first accepted her slight form into my arms. Her long limbs, elegant fingers,  and thick, silky hair remind me of her birth family as none of us have those traits. That’s OK. Our love connection is solid.

It occurred to me that it has been years — years! — since anyone has asked any of us if we belong together. In the beginning, it was a constant affront.

And now, the court of opinion has grown to include  one very astute five-year-old.

That is the sweetest thing.

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Waiting for aurora borealis

June 20th, 2011
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, decor...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s after 1 a.m. and I’m semi-lost. I’m also very sleepy and considering blowing through every red light in this shady town so I can escape its tricky streets that keep landing me in the same intersection. At the last red light, a low-rider packed with trouble and pulsating loud music pulled alongside my family wagon, confirmed this as a questionable, if not outright irresponsible, parenting moment.  I willed us, a car of two women and one young child, invisible.

How did I get here? Driving in circles through the maze of one-way streets in this downtrodden burg? How is it I’m watching the contents of several nightclubs spew onto the streets while keeping a peripheral eye on the vagrants weaving along the  curbs instead of gazing at the heavens above for signs of magic? I glance in the rear-view mirror to see my four-year-old slumped in her car seat, her bowed lips slightly parted in deep sleep.  What are my children doing out on the streets when they should be home in their beds?

Aurora  borealis made me do it.

That’s right.

It started out so innocently. A radio report that afternoon promised a rare view of the northern lights in Michigan. Solar flares and all the other magical stuff that goes into aurora borealis meant I could show my children something special on an otherwise boring weeknight.

I hatched the plan quickly: We’d go around 11:30 p.m. and just head north out of the city. I’d drive until I could see more than two stars.  I had a quarter tank of gas, my water bottle, my digital camera, my cell phone and my keys. Left behind: my wallet and my common sense. I drove with my window down and every so often gazed upward to see if I could see anything glowy or shimmery. That was my whole plan. It was the plan of a 12-year-old child.

See, some of it is based on the last time I answered the call of the hypnotic northern lights. I lived in what once were the outer suburbs. It was easy to drive an hour to a purely unpolluted night sky. Ten years ago I moved close to the city center. I’m lucky if I see ursa major in the sky on a clear night.

I love the northern lights. I love them so much, I lose all common sense to view them. I’ve only seen them four times in my life, which is probably more than most folks who live below the 45th parallel can claim. My husband has never witnessed their otherworldly beauty. Neither have my children.

My first sighting was as a college student.  I stumbled out of the student newspaper office well after midnight, red-eyed and wired on caffeine. I don’t know what made me look upward, but when I did, I had to rub my eyes and slap my cheeks a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating on this brisk night. I knew northern lights were awe-inspiring, but I had no idea how much so until I stood in that empty  parking lot staring at the sky. Within minutes, other newspaper staff members joined me. We found a bench nearby and sat, shivering, watching what looked like giant celestial curtains puffing in the breeze.

Over the next decade I saw them three more times: in the outer suburbs of Detroit and twice while camping in northwest Michigan.  Each time the display was bigger, more colorful and dramatic than the last.

I react to the northern lights the way some people do to seeing the face of Jesus on a potato chip or when alphabet soup inadvertently spells your future spouse’s name. I am moved. Moved to stupidity.

I can’t help it. I realize that piling my children into the car in the wee hours of morning without a plan, with less than a quarter tank of gas, and ending up turned around in a dangerous town was not one of my shining parental moments.

Eventually I found the right road to get us home.

When we pulled into the garage and the automatic door rolled down, thereby restoring us to a sense of safety, a let out a heavy sigh. Relieved we’d made it home. Embarrassed that my promises of magic were duds. Annoyed that an hour’s worth of driving didn’t get me any farther away from the urban sprawl and light pollution. Disappointed as hell that I didn’t get to see those celestial curtains blowing in the breeze.


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May 8th, 2011


By Mrs. Gemstone via Creative Commons

Today I cut some lilac blooms, filled a bud vase with water and tucked the fragrant blossoms inside. I placed the bouquet on the table set for a Mother’s Day lunch. The vase sits in silent tribute to the unknown, but very real guest at our table: my youngest daughter’s birth mother.

Although she is not visible to us and we do not know where to find her (or if she is alive), I have an idea of  what she looks like:

I see her mother when I run my fingers through my girl’s quirky, wiry hair that only grows in one direction. I see her mother when I look into my daughter’s wide, ink-black eyes, watch her expressive brows bounce up and down as she talks, and hear her high-pitched giggle. I see her when I examine my girl’s distinctive ears. These ears are a physical feature that I am certain will help us track her birth family should we ever embark upon that quest.

Not from us, but from her birth parents, come her elegant pianist’s fingers, her nimble dancer’s legs. She is born of acrobats, gymnasts and athletes. Whatever her biological origins, no matter how humble, her lineage speaks of beauty, strength and grace.

I  love my girl more than life.  Most days I just see her. I don’t see the physical differences. It’s only when someone outside the family asks: Is she yours? Where did she come from? that my bubble is burst and I must face the birth mother, who’s always in the shadows.

Without question, I love my almost-kindergartener daughter with the same fierce devotion as I love the child who grew inside me, my almost-college-student daughter. I mourn the severed bond between my youngest girl and her birth mother. I cannot image holding a newborn and then watching her vanish from my life. I wonder: Does my girl’s first mother think of her? Would she want a reunion? The simple answer would be: of course she does. But this is a conclusion based on my culture. My culture is not the first mother’s culture.

I used to feel threatened when my girl so easily slipped into the arms of her pretty, young Mandarin teachers. I felt inadequate, feared that my girl noticed the differences between us and wanted the familiarity of a Chinese face, a voice that spoke in tones she knew before her birth. Today, I am grateful that she has so many Chinese-born women in her life.

I had the privilege recently  to meet a woman born of Chinese parents but raised by Caucasians. Later, she found her birth family. What I learned from this woman is that even though her Caucasian parents don’t look like her and couldn’t do much to teach her to be Chinese, they are bound by love. She is grateful to have a link to her past, but would not want a different life.

While it is difficult for us to do, we take time to acknowledge the woman who made it possible for our youngest child to be a part of our lives. We recognize that this came about through a tragedy beyond her control. While my daughter brings infinite joy to our lives, she left behind a landscape of sorrow.

We know that in the coming years the birth parents, particularly the mother,  will take on an even stronger presence in our home. Our girl will ask pointed questions. We will find honest answers. There will be tears. We cannot hide these parental figures in the closet. They must have a place at the table, just like the bouquet of lilacs.


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February 7th, 2011

Photo by Shirley McShane Sillars

Two young men all in black with red sashes cross the stage, bow, and begin pounding on a set of drums. As the beats build and pulse through the  crowded gymnasium, my 5-year-old covers each ear with an open hand.

“Too loud,” she mouths over the din.

The beats change and the lions on stage jump to life. They bob and weave around two masked Buddhas. The mythical characters leap off the stage and toward the crowd. My girl leans into me a little harder as one of the fringed, bejeweled creatures heads our way.

So goes another family cultural experience. I haven’t been to a Chinese New Year lion dance yet that wasn’t loud and wildly colorful. It is, after all, the biggest holiday of the year, why not? Sure, the food buffets are great. But the clashing cymbals, thumping drums, and the dancing characters are always the highlight of the holiday. That’s my opinion. I’m not so sure my 5-year-old feels the same way. To her, the costumed characters and ominous drumming are more in line with Halloween.

She reacted the same way to the package of duck eggs, sesame balls, and custard buns served earlier in the program.

“I want mac and cheese,” she whispered with a pout.

Almost five years ago in China, we chopped traditional food into small bites and placed them on her high chair tray. She gobbled them up happily. How many miles and months separate those long-ago Chinese breakfast buffets of congee and dim sum from today’s choices of oatmeal, Cheerios, and peanut-butter topped banana slices?

Keeping Chinese culture a part of our youngest daughter’s life is a balancing act. Add too much and it feels forced. Ignore it and have some explaining to do later. Her first lessons were in a Chinese-language based preschool before we switched her to a more affordable, traditional one in our neighborhood. We continue to seek out and nurture friendships with Chinese families. We are sure to include some type of cultural activity each Chinese New Year.  This year, we visit the area’s bustling Chinese-American school of language and culture.

My daughter knows she’s from China. But slowly she is morphing into an all-American girl. I’m reminded of that heart-wrenching moment when our plane ascended from the tarmac in Guangzhou, China. As happy as I was to have her cradled in my arms, I felt her cultural ties snap as we gained altitude.  I feel an obligation to live up to a pledge we made in China as we processed our adoption papers — to teach her about her culture and keep it in her life.

Easier said than done.

While we have a solid network of adoptive families, our Chinese-American connections form and disappear quickly, as many families we meet don’t have deep roots here. A job transfer or a family matter whisks them out of our reach. We buy tickets to shows put on by visiting musical and dance troupes. We visit local China markets or seek Chinatown neighborhoods in other cities when we can, if for no other reason than to experience the sights, the sounds, the smells of her homeland. It can’t hurt.

We are not always welcomed with open arms. It seems many Chinese families don’t know what to make of us. I don’t think they really know what we are after. I’m not sure we always know, either.

Unless she tells us otherwise, we will continue to seek ways to merge our daughter’s culture with ours, inventing our own family traditions. Her birthplace and history are as important as our stories.

On this Chinese New Year as in years past, the music is loud. The colors are bright. The food is a little intimidating but delicious. We know little of the origins of the holiday and its customs. It doesn’t matter. Slowly a family reaches across the divide to make a connection.

Happy year of the rabbit.

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