My husband and I began exploring adoption about four years ago through Kidsave, an orphan advocacy group that focuses on older children ("older" being defined in this context as six years or more). It's my understanding that older children, especially boys, are not as likely as infants/toddlers to be adopted. Kidsave has a so-called "Summer Miracles" program through which they bring over orphans from Colombia (in the past they've also brought over children from Russia and Taiwan) to families in the U.S. for a summer visit (we were open to kids of all nationalities). During their summer visit, the children are hosted by families who are themselves interested in adopting older kids or advocate-families willing to host so that other U.S.-American families can meet the children. Two years ago, we adopted our son Michael, then 13, whom we met through that program. Here is Michael shortly after he joined our family, being welcomed by my mother and his ecstatic new Abuelita (on back seat), along with family dogs Achilles and Gabriela:
When it comes to the type of layers in an orphan's or adoptee's life, a picture is a gazillion words. For instance, in the above photo Michael is wearing a white shirt. My son loves to wear white. I believe it's partly because, as his former orphanage director once said to me, white is not practical in the orphanage given the vicissitudes of mass laundering (the orphanage housed about 180 children).
Then -- having learned that to be a parent is to take pictures! -- here is Michael during his first Holiday Season with us, as ever with the pups who've so helped ease his transition:
Over the past two years, we have experienced much extreme emotions in parenting Michael. Joys, yes, but also frustrations (not to mention the start of puberty!), and both are usually keenly felt. But, ultimately, Michael is a Gift! We appreciate him for many reasons, one of which has been his self-determination that's allowed for an impressive, awe-inspiring progress over the past two years. He has blossomed in many ways and, indeed, received the "Best-of" certificate in English-as-a-second language at his first U.S. school. Nothing more clearly shows his progress as his academic experiences. He arrived here from Spanish-only 4th grade orphanage schooling (though the curriculum was at a lower level than "real" 4th grade). Two years later -- and despite my homeschooling him in math (when I can barely add) during his first summer in the U.S. -- he is set to graduate from English-only 8th grade from one of the top middle schools in California. He also was just accepted to one of the top high schools in the U.S. Along the way, he became an art awardee, a published photographer, a published poet, a soccer champ -- I can go on and on ... AND do go on HERE as a smitten Mom, blogging cheerfully and unashamedly about Michael's achievements.
Michael posseses a huge work ethic and highly competitive spirit -- both serve him well as he transitions to a new family, language, culture and country. But I'm not just bragging about him because I'm his mother. Michael's progress also shows just how much potential is waiting to be unlocked in children living in orphanages around the world. It's estimated that for every two years of institutionalization, a child loses a year in development; Michael was in an orphanage for 6-7 years. His growth on all levels since he joined our family has been exponentially fast, as rapid as the speed of model rockets he's learned with his Dad to build and then launch straight up towards the sunlit, blue summer skies of Napa Valley.
Michael, as an older child adoptee, clearly knows the difference before and after adoption. It's been both saddening and joyous to watch him develop so robustly when he knows there are people who care and whom he can call "Mom" and "Dad" (in his first year with us, there was a certain relish in his tone as he uttered those two words at us). Joyous for obvious reasons; saddening because simmering beneath our experiences in his first years with us is our desire for him to tally up as many moments of happiness as he can experience, as if that sum could ever erase a childhood of neglect or abuse. I keep recalling something Jonathan Carroll once observed: "our youth is where the only gods we ever created live." What will this mean for our son?
For now, one tries one's best and hopefully survives (I'm not being dramatic: at the start of his second year with us, puberty kicked in and as one adoption therapist has told me about youth with backgrounds like my son's, "Take the normal puberty-related issues as regards identity and multiply them by (at least) three!") To have no prior parenting experience and to become a parent suddenly to a 13-year-old boy is simply a path without a map. Yet, I am finding out that that most mapless practice -- Poetry -- provided decent training. A poetry practice that attempts (and often fails for) heightened awareness, open-mindedness, compassion and little or no expectation of guarantees in life helps out this poet-parent.
Meanwhile, witnessing Michael blossom is a radicalizing experience in many ways by expanding how one feels and sees, therefore what one can begin to realize....and, thus, how one might attempt poetry. I say this even though I quote/paraphrase from one of the adoption blogs I now read obsessively, "As a parent it is so hard to have to learn my lessons through my child’s pain..."
(I write, in a different context, about my adoption experiences in X POETICS, curated by Robin Tremblay-McGaw as I followed up on a presentation of the same topic at Small Press Traffic in 2010. Go HERE FOR THAT DISCUSSION.)
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
...poetry taught me that becoming human was the most honorable task of poetry --Joy Harjo
The experience naturally has impacted my poetry. But so far the primary effect has not been one of writing poems about my adopted child (though I've written a few). The effect mostly has been one of writing poems about the many orphans I met during the international adoption process -- most of whom will never be adopted. Estimates vary for the number of orphans worldwide, but I've seen such estimates go as high as 200 million. In such counts, the definition of "orphan" also can include children with both parents still living but unable to take care of them.
The existence of so many orphans is one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of our time. It is a tragedy that doesn't get as much attention as the effects of natural disasters or wars, though the estimates show how many (more) people are affected. I also believe that adoption is not the ideal solution. Addressing the poverty that would create orphans, for example, would reduce the number of orphans more than adoption. But reality shows that, for now and the foreseeable future, adoption is a necessary tool in addressing the needs of orphans.
As regards orphans who will never be adopted -- this isn't just an issue that concerns me; these children are not abstract. One can be the Many and when I think of them, I recall again the conflicted, tortured emotions I felt when I tried to adopt for the first time and had that experience result in a "disruption." A failed adoption, I learned to my sorrow, is called (and what an understatement!) a "disruption." Much of the details of this story must, and should, remain private -- but it had to do with how abuse and then institutionalization created a child unable to attach to someone else.* It's not uncommon for older children (obviously unlike with babies) to be asked if they are willing to be adopted by identified potential parents; the first child we tried to adopt must have been so confused when he described me and my husband as "good parents" but then refused to be adopted. One symptom of attachment disorder is how, when a previously abused orphan begins to feel close to someone like a potential adoptive parent, that orphan ironically starts pushing away that adult. Why? Because the child had been so betrayed by the adults in his past and would not want to rely on adults again -- it's something that can be addressed by therapy but, in our case, there was no time for therapy before the child had to decide whether or not to be adopted. I still think of that child today; we were not allowed by authorities to keep in touch with him but recently met someone who'd seen him while visiting his orphanage -- he was described to us as behaving like a "wild child." Well, yes: with no or little guidance, a child can become wild...
Adoption practices can be improved in many countries. My poem "Empire" below is a found poem -- I reformatted the text from a New York Times article into a poem under one of poetry's possibilities: to draw attention. To further draw attention, I am also developing a manuscript-in-progress entitled 147 MILLION ORPHANS. Indeed, adoption has affected my poetics in a way where I desired to curate this Blog: Poets On Adoption.
While, in the sample poems below, I believe I am writing about orphans, the persona presented is one who was adopted. I'm not sure why I'm not writing directly from an orphan's perspective. But I suspect it has to do with the instability of identity. Going through the usual developmental phases of exploring/questioning identity can be difficult -- my non-adoption related experience taught me that identity is unstable, fragile, fluctuates. But when you add the stresses from the circumstances that caused one to become an orphan ... and perhaps later an adoptee, the experience can become even more complicated, more fraught, even if one might also come out of the experience with a widened and/or deepened psychological expanse.
To draw attention -- it wouldn't surprise me if I'll be writing more, how to put it?, transparently, linearly, narratively, accessibly...? In poetry, I've felt free to riotously experiment in the past, or reflect my love for abstraction through language. For the most part, this has been because such approaches lend themselves to three of my major poetic concerns: beauty, eros and a rebellion against the dictionary (the latter reflecting a transcolonial rebellion against English as a colonizing tool**). But as a relatively new advocate for orphans, I have various specifics to say/share. If Form is to reflect Content, I suspect that, with many future poems, my ex-English teacher mother (and a few others who've read some of my poetry in the past) might finally stop chiding me with the response, "I don't understand your poems."
I've never been bothered by that type of response -- in the past, I've usually felt my poems weren't something to comprehend so much as something to feel. Nor do I feel that poetry's goal is solely to communicate. But if I am to advocate for orphans, I want the reader to understand***...:
The current state of orphans around the world is among the greatest humanitarian tragedies of all time.
My particular focus has been on older children growing up in institutions, about which Kidsave provides the following information:
The longer children live in institutions or foster homes without a stable, loving adult connection, the bleaker their future becomes.
•1 in 10 will commit suicide
•Less than half will finish high school
•1 in 3 will be homeless
•50% will end up in jail
•1 in 4 will become parents before the age of 20, and their children will likely end up in orphanages or foster homes
•Many will turn to drug trafficking or prostitution to survive
Many of these children are overlooked for adoption because they are “older” (more than six-years old) and parents believe they don’t want to be, or can’t be adopted. It is not okay.
More information is available at the Kidsave site HERE. To become aware of this parallel universe inhabited by orphans is inevitably to advocate adoption -- the number of orphans is unforgivably too high. It is my wish for Poets On Adoption to draw attention to this issue, as well as show how adoption impacts certain poems. From reading many effective poems, I've learned:
To bring the poem into the world
is to bring the world into the poem.****
*: I did write about the experience (using no names) in The Blind Chatelaine's Keys.
** More information about my version of transcolonial abstraction is in an article by Leny M. Strobel for README
*** Having said all that, the demands of the poem often transcend the poet's intention so I wouldn't say I know for sure how future poems will turn out.
**** From "Conjuration #5" in I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
from ORPHANED ALGEBRA
In the House of Abandoned Children a boy leans over to watch a spider wrap a fly, a fragile gift. There is a tenderness here not unlike mothering, a caring in the way the handless arms turn the prey round and round, wrapping it in varying diagonal threads until it becomes a swaddled white ball.
—from "Creation Myth Number One" by Henry Israeli
Orphaned Algebra (#45)
DEATH VALLEY: The lowest point in Death Valley, California is 282 feet below sea level. The highest point is 11,049 feet above sea level. What is the change in elevation from highest point to lowest point? Once, I was brought to the sea. Before they became ghosts, they immersed me until, chin just topping salty water, my head became attached to the planet. With the planet as my body, I know its depths and peaks. So the lowest point in Death Valley is not when I starved but when, once, I stole from a poor man’s tienda to eat something that week. The highest point is when a “Mom” and “Dad” brought me to a house where each inch of its interior glowed from love. I no longer take five hours to finish a meal. The change in elevation is exactly an ascetic’s illusion of ecstasy, a measurement made possible by its condition precedent: a suffering so unmitigated it hollows the non-survivors from children to earthworms.
Orphaned Algebra (#65)
At a party supply store, you buy cowboy hats that cost $2 each, four flashing wands that cost $3 each, and two balloons that cost $1 each. You give the cashier $20. How much change do you receive? What is the depth of the grief that causes you to stuff dollars into a nearby jar emblazoned with the photograph of a toothless toddler with a belly larger than its head? Why do sirens and policecars’ flashing lights unfailingly bring you to a memory of a poet’s question: “Do two negatives equal a positive? Or do they simply cancel out one another?”
Orphaned Algebra (#66)
A diamond’s weight is measured in carats. A ring has ¼ carat diamond and two 1/8 carat diamonds. What is the total weight of the ring’s diamonds? How would you translate the sum to the number of weeks delaying the fragmentation of your family? Would that period be shortened or lengthened by the emptied bottles flung by your grandmother at the target defined as your face? How did broken glass surface your first thought of Beauty, as if the wink from a wet glass when kissed by light obviated the sharpness of slivers?
Orphaned Algebra (#67)
CHALLENGE: At a deli, ham costs $4.99 a pound. Turkey costs $5.29 per pound. You buy 1.5 pounds of turkey and 1.75 pounds of ham. Which costs more, the ham or turkey? How much more? How much more if you are making the calculation twenty years later and you’re suddenly standing frozen in another continent’s store, recalling how you never tasted meat as a child? Remembering how you survived only by forgetting everything except what you were allowed to keep because it is never used: your middle name? Recalling now how your survival requires you to master algebra when a relationship’s stability cannot be guaranteed by even the most indigenized cell memory…?
(a “found poem”)
The Russian government spends roughly $3 billion annually on orphanages and similar facilities, creating a system that is an important source of jobs and money on the regional level — and a target for corruption.
As a result, it is in the interests of regional officials to maintain the flow of children to orphanages and then not to let them leave, child welfare experts said.
When adoptions are permitted, families, especially foreign families, have to pay large fees and navigate a complex bureaucracy.
“The system has one goal, which is to preserve itself,” said Boris L. Altshuler, chairman of Right of the Child, an advocacy group in Moscow, and a member of a Kremlin advisory group. “That is why the process of adoption in Russia is like going through the circles of hell,” he said.
“The system wants these children to remain orphans.”
Selected Notes to Poems:
The Orphaned Algebra series takes each prose poem’s initial impetus from a math exercise in About California Math 1 by Ron Larson, Laurie Boswell, Timothy D. Kanold and Lee Stiff (McDougal Littell, a division of Houghton Mifflin, Evanston, IL, 2008). Each numerical-title refers to an exercise in the textbook which was used in my son Michael’s 7th grade class.
For “(#65)”, the ending question was quoted from Steve Fellner’s blog; these poems also use the form of collage from various sources.
"(#45)" was previously published in Tinfish, Editor Susan Schultz.
“EMPIRE” is a found poem lifted from the article “Russian Orphanage Offers Love, Not Families” by Clifford J. Levy, The New York Times, May 3, 2010
Other poems I've written about orphans and/or adoption are available elsewhere online, such as in the following links:
ORPHANED ALGEBRA (#23): Fiera Lingue (Health & Illness Issue), Eds. Anny Ballardini and Obododimma Oha
ORPHANED ALGEBRA (#64, #163 [Version 2], and #67): Otoliths, Ed. Mark Young
English Lessons: Ekleksographia, Guest Ed. Anny Ballardini
The Blue Mule: An Ado(a)ption Triptych: Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Ed. M.L. Weber
MOUNTAIN MOM: Otoliths, Ed. Mark Young
"MOTH ER": Otoliths, Ed. Mark Young
MMXII and MMXIII from 147 Million Orphans: The Brooklyn Rail, Poetry Ed. Anselm Berrigan
ABOUT THE POET:
Eileen R. Tabios has released 18 print, 4 electronic and 1 CD poetry collections, an art-essay collection, a poetry essay/interview anthology, a short story book and a collection of novels. Recipient of the Philippines' National Book Award for Poetry for her first poetry book Beyond Life Sentences, she has exhibited visual poetry and visual art in the United States and Asia. She has also edited, co-edited or conceptualized nine anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays.
With recent books being THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems and New (1998-2010) and SILK EGG: Collected Novels, she's crafted a body of work that is unique for melding ekphrasis with transcolonialism. Her poems have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Tagalog, Japanese, Portuguese, Polish, Greek, computer-generated hybrid languages, Paintings, Video, Drawings, Visual Poetry, Mixed Media Collages, Kali Martial Arts, Music, Modern Dance and Sculpture. As part of her poetry-as-performance approach, she blogs as the "Chatelaine", and edits Galatea Resurrects (A Poetry Engagement), a popular poetry review journal. As a further extension of her poetics, she also founded Meritage Press, a multi-disciplinary literary and arts press based in San Francisco & St. Helena.
Last but not least, she is a Mom! For their first Mother's Day together, her son Michael gave her the best present of a drawing showing a Terminator-type character--such a boy with his Terminators!--saying he HEARTS his Mom's "book"!