Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fun at the Fair

When you go to the fair, you know what to expect.

You admire a 500-pound watermelon.  You coo over a blue-ribboned pig on a leash.  You think fried butter on a stick is a good idea.       

But sometimes the fair can take you by surprise.

That's what happened to me last Thursday when I was a featured author in The Alphabet Forest at the Minnesota State Fair.  Created by Minneapolis author Debra Frasier (A Fabulous Fair Alphabet) and the Children's Literature Network, the park offers literacy games and activities each day from 9 am until 6 pm through the fair's run.

I know you're thinking, You've got to be kidding.  In the middle of every possible mind-blowing, high-intensity, sugar-frenzied fair distraction, no self-respecting child could be dragged into reading and writing experiences.

You'd be wrong.  They come in droves.

My project, based on Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, gave children two options.  They could create stick puppets from the book's characters and re-tell the baby's adventure, or they could create their own characters and imagine an adventure that might have happened on their birth night.  We gave them a kit with all the necessary parts (http://sweetmoonbaby.blogspot.com/2013/08/sudden-angels-part-2-instant-relatives.html).  I assumed they'd fly through a rushed assembly of pre-printed pieces at their parents' insistence and run off for cotton candy and duck races.  It's still summer.  Who wants to do school stuff?!

But those children developed an original storyline.  They wondered over possible magical influences that might have helped them--snowflakes, a seahorse, fireworks.  They drew themselves as babies.  They imagined what their parents wore.  They asked for more sticks and blank circles to make additional people and animals who might have helped on their journey.  They decorated their stages with pumpkins and daisies and rainbows.  They tried out dialogue, handing puppets to me so I could play along.  Plenty of them crafted the artwork we provided, too, asking questions about the book.  When they learned that Maggie, the teenager helping them, was the real Sweet Moon Baby, they were amazed.  A little boy said, "I never knew anyone out of a book before."

Even toddlers wanted to be at the table.  A three-year-old girl listened closely and scribbled with a crayon.  Her finished pieces might have looked ambiguous to anyone else, but they were clear to her as she announced, "Daddy, Mama, me!"      

It gets better.

You know how people insist that children need to be entertained in order to learn?  Or that children require every possible technological whirlygig?

We did all of this with paper and markers and glue sticks.  There wasn't a battery or power cord or digital screen in sight.  Every bit of information came from their own imaginations, their own experiences, their own family stories about wonderful things that happened on that special birth night.

No one googled anything. 

I went into this thinking I was just there to fill a time slot--an activity counselor under the shade trees.  But sitting there with my husband Cliff and Maggie, I discovered we were a reminder that every life has a phenomenal story line.  Despite the nearby pull of the Lego Challenge and the clickety-clacking from the marionette booth, these children took all the time in the world to consider the magic in their own stories.

As grand and glorious as a fair can be, it's nothing compared to a child's blue-ribboned life. 

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Friday, August 16, 2013


We adopted our daughter from China in 1997, and no one was allowed to visit orphanages then. Too much negative press closed those doors.  We received her at a hotel, having no idea what her life looked like before that day. Only 11-months old, she certainly couldn't tell us, and there's reason to believe she's lost all those early memories by now.

When we returned to China in 2012, she said she didn't want to visit her orphanage even though it would have been possible.  Last spring we received pictures of it, but she didn't care to look at them.  She's moved on.  After watching Somewhere Between, the documentary about Chinese girls adopted by American families, she seemed satisfied that some questions have no answers.  And that some answers don't necessarily help.

You are where you are in life.  There's no going back.

For those who are curious, however, Peg Helminski, an adoptive mother herself, has written an illuminating novel, Daughter of a Thousand Pieces of Gold, about a girl's life in China at the same time our daughter lived there in the late 1990s.

I'm inclined to stop here because it's hard to comment without spoiling the dramatic story of Mei Lin.  I knew nothing about the book, so being uninformed was the great journey for me.  The plot's twists are as amazing as a tale from Dickens.  I was horrified and nervous and eager, wondering how such torment and joy could exist in one child's life.

Then I remembered: I have a Chinese orphan, too.

That has been my important realization: Adoption never goes away.  It is a constant that shifts.  The tides of an ocean are currently moving, whether I see them or not.  My daughter's sense of her history rises and recedes each day.  Some days are effortless.  Some days are mysterious.

Helminski's novel is a significant examination of Chinese life at that time in history.  Her extensive research shows us the riveting details of a culture far different from ours.  We see the capricious nature of government decrees.  We see the struggle people face to reconcile reality with theory.  We see the power of the heart, which knows no international boundaries. 

As I read, I discovered how much I don't understand, how much I assume.  In the story, two girls discuss the roles of the adults working in their orphanage, and one explains: "A Mama doesn't go away at the end of her shift.  I think they might be different in other ways, too.  I don't know.  I never had a Mama."  Simple but breath-taking truths like this roll across these pages.

You have no idea what you don't know about adoption until you read this novel.

Because this is a self-published book, I feel compelled to address people who avoid non-traditional publications.  Yes, there are places where one could question a too-neatly-tied-up conclusion or a thinly developed character or a glitch in proofreading.  But whatever your technical quibble might be, let go of it.  The power of this story rises above such raised-eyebrow sensibilities if you're curious about China's one-child policy and the gates that finally flew open on the issue.

I am.  I always will be.

My own life story is an easy one.  It started at Point A in a hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana, when I was born to my parents who drove me home in a Ford.  I have pictures of the day.  My daughter Maggie's Point A will always float in the mist behind her.  No matter how many times she looks over her shoulder.  Or doesn't.  She cannot find it.

But I can save this book for her.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sudden Angels Part 2: Instant Relatives

When I was a little girl, my summer highlight was visiting my grandparents' farm in Crawford County Illinois. I gathered eggs, made mud pies, and chased lightning bugs.

But the best part was the Saturday night picnic.

Relatives arrived by train, car, and pick-up truck. One of my dad's best friends came in a dazzling orange and white convertible. We carried all the tables and chairs outside, and if you couldn't find a place there, you ate on quilts scattered across the lawn. The washtub held ice and soft drinks, and no one kept track of how many the cousins drank. We had fried chicken, corn, baked beans, pie, and cake.

We made our fun.

I can still hear the crack of croquet balls and someone, usually me, begging my mother to turn cartwheels.  Everyone took a turn at cranking the homemade vanilla ice cream. Even cleaning up was an event because it was a monumental task on a farm with no running water.  Buckets of water were heated on the stove, and the men rolled up their sleeves to wash pans and plates. Women in aprons dried them. 

When I was still too small to help, someone would pretend I was lost and look for me among the yellow lilies bordering the wash house. I giggled and insisted, "Here I am! Look at me!" as the search continued.

I thought those picnics would go on forever. I thought my children would grow up in that kind of summer delight. It didn't happen that way at all. The families scattered across great distances, their schedules jam-packed with cruises and classes, texting their apologies for not being available. Generous souls passed away.

But my daughter Maggie got a glimpse of that kind of jovial event recently when volunteers with the Children's Literature Network gathered at the fairgrounds to get crafts ready for the Minnesota State Fair's Alphabet Forest. Because Sweet Moon Baby will be a featured book on August 22nd, the fair's opening day, Maggie and I will be there to help kids make a Sweet Moon Theater to celebrate an imagined adventure on the day they were born.

Some volunteers cut out puppet faces. Some measured yarn. Some sliced "noodles" to hold letters. Some folded patterns. But we all laughed--more and more as we got delirious from aching fingers and stiff necks.

I tried to stay quiet so Maggie would talk. (When you've got a teenager and a mother together, you've got ample opportunity for eye-rolling behavior from either party.) I did my best to avoid embarrassing her. I let her organize the details. I let her answer questions about her summer without my prompting.

She was surrounded by jovial adults, Aunt Kim, Aunt Debra, Aunt Sue, Aunt Lisa, Aunt Vicki, Aunt Cindy, Aunt Joyce, and Aunt Donna. And typical of all families, one good-natured relative was teased for not helping, although Uncle Steve assured us he was doing official work on his laptop and not playing Angry Birds.

Maybe we lacked fried chicken and aprons, but we pitched in together for a shared purpose that made for a really nice time. In a room filled with book people, titles and plot lines flew. Maggie, a reader herself, added her opinions.  

Every time I looked at her, she was smiling and busy, totally involved in the moment. The fine people at those tables made that possible.

My grandparents' farm is long gone, but I still have their yellow lilies, here in Ramsey County Minnesota. The blooms remind me of the little girl I used to be. While I can't re-create my own summer joy for Maggie, I know enough to recognize the value of good people in her life. Their presence, however it happens, is its own colorful quilt on the landscape of her memory.
I'll take a family wherever I can find it.