Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Safe in the Clouds

In March 2012 we took Maggie back to China for the first time since she left there in 1997.  I assumed landing in Beijing would signal our arrival in another culture.  I was wrong.  It began at gates C 18 and 19 at the airport in Chicago.

One carry-on only means one to Americans, who carried one bag in hand.  The assembled Chinese arrived with one, but inside each one was another and another in a sleight-of-hand that produced bags, boxes, and baskets filled with hard-boiled eggs, oranges, napkins, chopsticks, and noodles.  Courses emerged like clowns emerging from a tiny car.  Everyone talked at once, passing food this way and that. 

We Americans sat stiffly, eating concourse fast food. 

We said nothing. 

We shared nothing. 

Before boarding, we dropped our folded trash in cans.  With the Chinese, everything vanished in a flurry of trading and stuffing into a recognizable one again.

As I entered the plane, I noticed a sign above the door said: The Sign of a Safe Cloud.  I assumed it was a charming mistranslation meant to reassure me that I was in good hands.  Boarding was calm until a Chinese man couldn’t fit his bag into the overhead bin.   He jumped and pressed with all his might, causing his seatmate, a tall American man, to move into the aisle for safety.  Suddenly six Chinese people, male and female, old and young, were moving their own bags from other bins, trying to make room for his.  The American grimly suggested, “It doesn’t matter how you turn it.  It won’t fit.”  They smiled at him and continued pushing suitcases until two Chinese people rose from several rows back with their opinions.  Here came rolled quilts.  There went a pair of shoes.  A knapsack was tossed.  I half-expected chickens to fly overhead as more and more bins were re-sorted.

Through it all, the dismissive Americans sat like Doubting Thomases.  Any one of us would have given up, called an attendant, and checked the bag.  But several dozen Chinese people cooperated until that bag fit.

No wonder their civilization has lasted for thousands of years.  Peter Hessler writes in River Town: Two Years on the Yantgtze that his Chinese students “were never suspicious of impossible tasks.”  I had just seen that tireless spirit for myself.

Once in the air, I thought about the safe cloud sign. (OK, now I know it refers to computers and technical things that mystify me.)  At that moment, in my storyboard mind, I knew why I was safe.  I knew if that plane began to fall from the sky, those Chinese people would save us, despite seemingly impossible odds.  They’d pull ropes and boats from all those bags.  They’d weave sails and ladders.  Quilts would become parachutes.

And they would not stop trying until we’d all landed.  By their good hands.  With noodles for everyone.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Sweet Moon Journey

When the nanny handed our daughter to us on a summer day in China, I thought the journey was finally finished.  Here she was—happy and whole. I smiled until my husband gave me the orphanage report: “Baby found forsaking on steps of leather factory.”

Suddenly I realized she would always live with a missing piece.

She would carry unreachable memories locked forever in her mind, her bones, her heart.  How does a child manage such an unknown?  She needed a way to think about the first year of her life, so I began imagining a journey for her—something beyond that basket balanced on a step and the rows of cribs in a plain room.  I wondered about our own journey to find her and how the two were linked.  Then one night in our yard she looked up at the sky and said her first English word, “Moon!” with a joy that made me believe they had been dear friends from the very first day of her life.

What else in China could have made an impression that still lingered in her memory?  I looked around her room at the things she loved best.  Who’s to say a turtle, a peacock, a monkey, a panda, and a fish weren’t part of her early life?  I saw how a rice basket, like the one that held her toys, could carry a baby down a river from claw to paw to wing.  I wrote it down.

My first picture book, Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010.  With that, I became an author, a dream from my own childhood.  What began as an answer for her ended up being an answer for me, too.

Journeys lead to journeys in unimagined ways.

After I read the book during a school visit, an adopted Chinese kindergarten girl announced: “I’m the real Sweet Moon Baby.”  I understood it was an answer for her mysterious journey, too.

And it all started with one baby found on a summer night in China.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Mermaid Blue

I have absolutely no business here.  The whole notion of blogging terrifies me.

I have no wisdom to impart.  I have no fascinating tales to tell.  I have no time-saving tricks to teach.

Blogging is another gerund to add to my list: exercising, flossing, dusting.  Now blogging.

But it’s more than that, too.  It sounds like I’m about to wrestle a frightening monster from the deepest, darkest part of the forest.  Beware the Blog is what I see painted on a wooden sign at a juncture on the path.  Scattered bones, shredded aprons, and smashed wagon wheels litter the ground.  Some villagers didn’t flee fast enough.  And I want to.  Desperately.

Instead, I’m going in. Why?

Because of my daughter.

She’s sixteen and takes on one brave thing after another each and every day because at her age everything is entirely new.  And complicated.  Sometimes she procrastinates to a fault.  Sometimes she refuses.  Sometimes she whines and worries.  This weekend she was invited to a birthday dinner party with people she didn’t know well.  She was nervous, knowing small talk would be required for two hours.  I asked what would make her feel brave, and she said polished fingernails might help.  So I painted each of her perfect nails a vibrant blue that reminded us of mermaid tails.

She attended that party with ten magic fingertips.  And she returned home all smiles.

So I press on with my own things that seem impossibly hard.  How will she learn courage if she doesn’t see me marching forward?  She's the reason I suit up in armor, however scratched and rusted it might be.

When she was five, she asked me if I'd wanted to be anything.  I knew she was now hearing about mothers who were designers and doctors and deputies.  She only saw me clean and cook.  I told her I wanted to be a writer once upon a time and took her to Barnes & Noble to find The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard.  It carried a snippet of the review I wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  She listened intently as I read it and she said, “That’s good, Mama.  You should write more.”

From time to time, she’d remind me again until I finally did.  She needed to learn more from me than stain removal techniques and recipes.  She needed to understand the value of getting past yourself, getting out of your own way, getting on with your life.  You have to believe in giving yourself a chance.  Otherwise you don’t stand a chance at all.

So here I am.  My intent is to post twice a month.  I think I can do that.

For the occasion, I painted my nails mermaid blue.