Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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The Third Peacock

Middle child of six siblings, this third Peacock often got lost in the crowd.

Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Our six birthdays, from the oldest to the youngest, spanned just nine years.  No wonder my mom could barely keep us straight.

Maureen. Tim. Joani. Bernie. Clare. Joseph. She would rattle through our names till she found the one that fit.

It’s me, mom. It’s Joani. Remember me?

And with six kids in the suburbs, it was no wonder that my mom made use of all the help that she could get. My Grandma Cady, my mom’s mom, would cook, make lunches, and help get us off to school. My dad was a doctor, a surgeon, so we could afford to hire help. Cornelia cleaned, Cora did the ironing, and Sonny, Cornelia’s brother did all the heavy lifting.

Outwardly, we all appeared neat and tidy, organized and orderly. But that was so not the case. My mom’s bipolar disorder, along with my dad’s addiction to work, wreaked havoc on our home.

But we six kids, whether because of our circumstances – or in spite of them — compounded the chaos tenfold.

There was a lot of yelling, screaming and name calling. Middle child, I learned to keep my head down. Middle child, a translator at the bargaining table, I tried to keep the peace.

As much, as any little kid could.

the third peacock book cover

And there was more than just a little competition. Who has to do the dishes.  Who gets to sit up front in the car. Who gets first crack at the Oreos – when my mom got home from the store.

Our birth order was also our pecking order — but often in reverse. My grade school idea of fairness was quite literal. I remember sneaking down the stairs, on Christmas Eve, after everyone had gone to bed, and counting the packages under the tree. Invariably, Baby Brother Joseph always got the most.

Always.

Joseph, was the most beloved, it seemed. Too little for household chores. Too adorable to be held accountable. He could always hide behind my mother’s skirts.

Or so it seemed to me.

Who wouldn’t want to murder their little brother? Or throw him into a pit? Or sell him off for twenty pieces of silver?

This is the story of Joseph. Not my baby brother Joseph. But Joseph of Genesis. Joseph, one of the great novellas of Hebrew Scripture. Joseph, the youngest and most favored son of Jacob. The one who got the awesome coat.  Baby brother Joseph, who did not endear himself to his siblings.

An angst filled family story of biblical proportions.

Joseph was seventeen years of – shepherding the flock with his brothers. Joseph, the apple of Jacob’s eye, put his brothers in a bad light. He ratted them out for some unnamed offense. And Jacob rewards him for betraying his brothers — with that amazing technicolor dream coat. The child of his old age, he loved Joseph best of all.

His brothers hated him for it. They could not even spare him a peaceable word.

Jacob sends Joseph out to find where his brothers are keeping the sheep. Before the distance is closed between them, the siblings conspire to do their little brother in.

Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into a pit.

We’ll tell dad a wild animal devoured him.

No, the eldest counters. Let’s just steal his coat, go with the pit and not kill him.

It being a waterless pit, this was Joseph’s brothers’ singular kindness.

Callously, they sit down to eat – while up comes a wandering band of Ishmaelites – nomads and merchants on their way to Egypt.

This inspires in Judah, another of the brothers, a very profitable idea.

Let’s sell him to the highest bidder!

So, they pull him out of the pit and hand him over for twenty pieces of silver.

 Joseph, the youngest, the interpreter of dreams, quite ironically is put in the middle. His protective father behind him – ahead, his brothers plotting his demise.

They could all use a little family therapy, don’t you think?

So, could we all.

Our families of origin. Our communities of choice. Our workplaces. Our psychic spaces. Our social circles and political cul-de-sacs. We all tend to hang out with our own tribe. The folks who look like us and think like us and agree with us.

All could use a little family therapy.

Yahweh does not rescue Joseph from the pit – at least not in the swoop down from heaven – Deus ex machina — way. Instead, God, quite providentially, leaves his children –- including us — to our own devices. The devices, God has equipped us with. By our wits, by our skills, by our gifts — to work out this family squabble on our own.

To literally appeal to our better angels.

Three weeks ago, July 21st, the Washington Post reporter, Colby Itkowitz wrote:

On a Wednesday evening, Donna Murphy joined about 30 people in a nondescript basement…for a Better Angels’ “skills workshop” to learn the fundamentals of how to have difficult conversations, to bring Democrats and Republicans together for a three day Better Angels dialogue.

 Better Angels began as a civics experiment in rural southwest Ohio several weeks after the election. With the emotions of the campaign still raw, a room of 21 strangers, ten who voted for Trump and 11 who voted for Clinton spent an entire weekend together talking.

 They listened. They debated. They vented. There were tense moments and emotional ones.

 After 13 hours of discussion, the participants did not change their views but left with a softened view of the other side.

 Better Angels went on a thirteen-city summer tour to promote this red-blue dialogue – to facilitate conversations across a deep political divide.

 The program is the brainchild of David Blankenhorn, a Republican, and onetime opponent of same sex marriage – who later changed his position after a friendship with a gay man changed his mind.

 The group takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, will swell the chorus of our Union, when again touched, as surely, they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

 Blankenhorn concludes:

 “One consistent message we’re getting is, there are strong disagreements, but we’re not as far apart as we thought we are. There is passion and disagreement…but the main takeaway is that this is good, this kind of talking with — rather than at or about – our political opponents is good for us and good for our country.”

 Some of these groups have decided to meet on a monthly basis. Some not. But meeting even once like this could be a really good idea, don’t you think?

A really good idea, we could put into practice here in Alexandria.

Maybe?

On behalf of Emmanuel, I have sent Mr. Blankenhorn an initial inquiry of how, as a parish, we might sponsor a Better Angels training weekend in our own backyard.

Just a possibility that could come to pass early next year.

A way to equip ourselves, as sisters and brothers, to speak and to listen to one another in love.

Let’s think about it. Talk about it. Pray about it.

The third Peacock, in me, wants to believe that we can work towards healing our tribal divides.

This middle child wants to believe that we can work towards putting aside our self-righteous needs always to be right.

Dear God, please, help us to both temper and to tame

the destructive side of our, all too human, sibling rivalries.

JoaniSign


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 Who Am I Really? A “Rebecca on Reunion” Podcast

Here, in my firstborn daughter’s own voice,  is Rebecca telling the story of our reunion.   Who Am I Really? is a project of Damon Davis: a series of very personal podcasts about the life journey of an adoptee and their search for reunion. Rebecca’s is Episode 18:What I Gained Through Reunion Is Context.

Listening to Rebecca’s voice, I definitely hear Joani. And I hear my daughter Colleen’s voice, too. Maybe even my niece, Lauren’s, as well. Not just the timbre of our voices resonates but how we all string words together. We use the same verbal punctuation. It is uncanny.

And Rebecca’s description of reunion dovetails incredibly with biomom’s. No coordination involved. Just DNA. Incredibly delightful.

So take a listen to Rebecca and let her fill you in on Who She Really Is!


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A Room Full of Mothers

How many children do you have?

Not a trick question, right? But it is a tricky one for me.

Publicly the answer has been an easy “three”  for twenty-nine years since I bore Jacob, my third following  Zach and Colleen back in 1987.

But behind closed doors, when asked, I would falter. The gynecologist would look at my chart and say: “How many pregnancies? Number of successful deliveries?”

Do I lie and say “three”? Does it really matter for my medical history?

Or do I tell the truth and say “four”. Then hold my breath and hope I won’t have to explain why I gave the first one away.

Every doctor’s appointment was a little flashback to my 17th year. The year the rabbit died. The year of seasick mornings and solitary trips to the Medicaid clinic. The year of the swelling belly and iron capsules to choke a horse. Remembering being ostracized by my family and terrified by the little life inside me.

Sitting on the examining table in a hospital gown, I would recall the mysterious being who kicked and elbowed and crammed their little self  into every little square inch of me.

And every year, September 28th, on her birthday, I would think of her and wonder where she was. I would beam powerful positive thoughts in her direction — to her unknown location.  And I would permit myself a melancholy moment or two, stuff it down, and then move on.

Stretched, so stretched beyond my teenage capacity.

She gave me my very first stretch marks. A badge of honor.

And just prior to Christmas past, she found me. Rebecca found me. I have told this story on U&U. And I have blogged about our Saint Patrick’s Day weekend reunion.

So serendipitous that we reunited on this Celtic feast. As an adoptee, in a sealed adoption, Rebecca’s “non-identifying information” identified her biological maternal family as Jewish.

Uh, no. Def got that wrong.

DNA and Ancestry.com identified a healthy dose of green blood. Irish. Definitely Irish.

Somehow deep down in her bones, Rebecca intuited this all along. All three of her children: Bella, Jude, and Meir are all steeped in Irish step dancing.

On my visit in March, I tagged along to their class at a dance studio in a nearby town. Kids of all ages in comfortable clothes and special shoes shuffled and kicked to Celtic tunes.

A Room Full of Mothers Jackie Wade mother an daughter

Parents, meanwhile, and by “parents”, I mean mostly moms crowded into the windowed little waiting room. Kindly one mom gave up her seat so that I could sit up front and see.

As other moms came and went, Rebecca introduced my unfamiliar face. Some already knew our story and some did not. Those who knew smiled and nodded. One very sweet mom even made us a celebratory strawberry tart.

But for those not in the know, Rebecca would quickly try to catch them up, starting with,

“This is my mother.”

Startled by her words, instinctively I looked over my shoulder and thought:

“Where, where is your mother? OMG, she means me!”

A singular mom sitting by the door had a quizzical look on her face — which compelled me to explain myself. I spew forth my teenage tale, circa 1972.

I didn’t need to do that. Or did I?

And I wonder about all of the moms in the room and what their stories might be. I wonder about the maternal ghosts and mothers in abstentia – who haunt this waiting room. Rebecca’s mother. My mother. Adoptive mothers. Birth mothers. Grandmothers. Stepmothers – both evil and good.

I wonder about all of the overlay and layers of expectations that our culture slathers onto maternity.

From our very first December conversation, I wanted to be especially respectful of Rebecca’s mom — the one who parented her so wonderfully. And I wanted  – and still want – to be especially careful not to offend her in any way.

Rebecca, 44 years old, reminded me that she is a fully functional grownup. Ha! And that it is hers alone to manage these relationships separately. I need be responsible only for my own.

And Rebecca has taught me that it is okay to say that I am her mother. That is biologically and verifably true. “Biomom” is what she most appropriately calls me.

Six months have now passed since Christmas. Rebecca and I talk, text, and email with some frequency. We have a loving relationship, a rippling relationship that now ripples throughout my family: with her siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and even cousins many times removed.

I now include Rebecca on all family emails, both the good news and the bad news. And when I send an email to “my kids”, I simply sign it “mom”. It was just too wonky and weird to qualify it as bio/mom or biomom/mom/Joani. And it seemed really silly to leave it blank. Its just an email for heavens’ sake, right?

It really is more though, isn’t it? Yes, I think it is.

And so back to the question:

How many children do you have?

No longer a tricky question,  I answer “four”.

One in VT. One in NYC. One in D.C. One in NC.

All rocking adults.

And I am happy to answer any questions, if you would like to know more.

JoaniSign


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Dirt Therapy, the 3rd

 

Easter, this year, began for me at Christmas Tide.

Sunday evening, December 11th, my phone rang. It was my baby brother Joseph on the line. “Are you sitting down?” he asks me. “Joani, we have never talked about this. Do you remember in 1972 when you were pregnant and gave a child up for adoption?” Dumbfounded, I literally respond,  “Yes, Joseph, of course, I do.”Well, she found me,” he says. “Through a DNA test on Ancestry.com, she found me.

The birth of a child to a teenage mother is a familiar story at Christmas. But the family trauma that resulted from my personal story, I had long buried.  And these forty-five year old memories resurrected a trembling seventeen year old child.

The very next day, December 12th, scared to death, I called my newfound child.  It was the best Christmas present I have ever been given. Her name is Rebecca.

We have spent the past four months condensing more than four decades, and without going into the details, I am happy to declare that all is good, very good. And if you like, you can catch up here: Scarlet Letter, No MoreThe “Nua” Normal“Knock the Unicorn Off the Cloud”

And resurrection has brought reunion.

It is remarkable how deeply Rebecca and I resemble one another: our personalities, our intellectual curiosity, our spiritual bent, our sense of humor. Not only our way of speaking but what we say. People have confused my writing for hers and her writing for mine. It is uncanny. It is remarkable. Rebecca says that distance reinforced her DNA. It was a form of rebellion, she says.

I do like the sound of that, though I am not sure exactly what it means.

Needless to say, this has been an incredibly healing experience.

I tremble no more.

Sprouted from the same soil,  Rebecca and I, our selves, our souls, and our bodies are intertwined.

So this Easter is all the sweeter:

Now the green blade riseth!  indeed!

So it seems very apropos to post Dirt Therapy once again.

A post that includes an anecdote about Jacob, Rebecca’s newly discovered little brother and a snapshot of my mother, the grandmother Rebecca never knew.

So, here we go…

Once upon an Eastertide, a little boy came home singing the Pete Seeger song: “Inch by inch, row by row, Lord, please help my garden grow”. At school the little boy, along with his class, had planted bean seeds in jelly jars. Each day they tended their little glass gardens, checking the moist dark earth. Some of the children drowned their seeds with love. While others, their seeds withered from neglect. While others, theirs actually and miraculously sprouted and grew.

Tiny green shoots poked their heads into the fluorescent light. Slender green vines wound around the inside of the jars.

And then one day — the little boy proudly brought his home and set it down on the kitchen table. His mom asked, “Okay, my little sweet potato, what’s this?” And the little boy replied:

”That’s Jesus, mom. That’s Jesus in a jar.”

It wasn’t exactly “Now the green blade riseth” but it was sweet indeed. That sweet little boy was my son Jacob (now 29 years old!). Sadly the little Jesus vine did not survive very long — but don’t blame Jacob. Sadly, you see, plants often came home to my house to die.

Even though I quite ironically once worked at plant store called “Great Plants Alive” most of the plants that crossed my threshold sadly met an untimely death.

And back in the day when I still had a backyard, I was quite happy to just let Mother Earth be my gardener. So whatever grew — grew –and whatever withered – withered. My yard was a little city patch of green. And since I had no green thumb, this was my rule:

If it’s green let it grow.

My lawn was covered with crab grass, wild violets, clover, and dandelions. The fence was covered with tangled honeysuckle vines, ghetto pines, a struggling maple tree, and poison ivy. Plastic baseball bats and dead tennis balls dotted my lawn. A sad little wagon and outgrown bicycles littered the grass.

Occasionally I would attempt to tame this wilding place with my lawn mower and a weed whacker. But much more often, I would retreat and recline in a plastic chair on the patio to read a good book.

If it’s green let it grow.

My manic-depressive mom, Mary Lou was quite the gardener. While I have been blessed with her bipolar brain, God did not see to bestow upon me her green thumb. And hers was very green indeed.

When I was growing up, my mother could lash out like lightning just as easily as she could erupt in joy. Her highs and lows were beyond her control, tamed only by a regular shot of bourbon, a little lithium, and the occasional session with Dr. Freud. My beloved mom did the best she could.

And she did her very best in the garden.EA11B186-69B7-45E1-8E52-41A174207E9A

Mary Lou was totally at home in her rock garden. She relished her trips to the local greenhouses and she spared no expense at the nursery.

The back of the station wagon would be overloaded with peat moss and potting soil, flats of flowers, hydrangeas and azaleas, and a shrub or two — or three.

The lawn would be littered with empty plastic pots, as she dug down deep in the dirt planting geraniums, petunias, and marigolds. I have a snapshot of her doing just this. Her sun kissed skin is freckled and bronze; her auburn hair peaks out from her kerchief; and golden hoops dangle from her ears. Gorgeous.

Resplendent and radiant, digging in the dirt, all is right with her soul.

Digging in the dirt is therapy.

Sowing seeds is therapy.

Fertilizing the soil is therapy.

Watering the ground is therapy.

Gardening is therapy.

Dirt therapy.

Wordless, holistic, holy, hopeful, dirty therapy.

My mother’s daughter, namely me, no longer has a backyard. But I do have a little balcony. And each Eastertide I plant my little English garden in half a dozen clay pots. I am partial to bright colors: Shasta daises; hibiscus; and geraniums. I am partial to plants of the forgiving kind, the kind that forgive me if I don’t water them as often as I should.

A little Miracle Grow, a little sunshine, a little dirt, and all is right with my soul. At least for a little while.

In the beginning, the Creator walked in the cool of the wet garden at the time of the evening breeze. God made us out of the dirt of the garden. God made us out of the dirt of paradise.

And so in all the deaths we die — both large and small — we return to the Garden. We go down into the dirt like seeds forgotten and buried in the dark earth.

So as we are in the beginning, we are in the end. The Alpha is also the Omega.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala, came to the garden and she saw that the stone was rolled away. And there stood the Gardener, the same Gardener who had walked at the time of the evening breeze. Mary did not know him until he called her by name. And then she knew. Here stands the very tiller, the very tender, the very lover of my soul.

Now the green blade riseth.

Dirt therapy.

JoaniSign


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“Knock the Unicorn Off the Cloud”

From Rebecca, my new found firstborn daughter, in her own words:

What happens when the people that you MOST want to talk about your life and adoption with are also the people who might be the most confused and hurt by what you have to say? What do you do when your loaded, intense and central-to-life story is also someone else’s….but from a completely different perspective? How do you handle the unremembered (but very much present) pain of separation when most people expect you to just be “fine and grateful”? How do you reunite with people who are all at once your closest relatives and at the same time complete strangers?

I dont know the answers to any of these questions. But I am trying to figure it out. By living it.

In times of great trauma (like war) children get torn asunder from their parents and their families. Sometimes, children are sent to live with other people to keep them safe from battle torn areas. Families in these situations perhaps spend years being apart, not knowing about the wellbeing of those they are separated from. When these families reunite, it is a clear cut story of wonderful reunification and a return to familial wholeness.

When families are apart because of adoption, there is an expectation that loss and separation are not felt in the same way as the war torn family. The original trauma that caused the need for adoption is not acknowledged, and the loss for both parents and child is not recognized. Somehow, this trauma which caused a need for separation and the subsequent loss and pain is not seen as valid or even present. If it is present, then something must be wrong that has absolutely nothing to do with being adopted or having relinquished a child. These feelings should all be washed away with a pervading feeling of being “grateful”, “making the ultimate sacrifice”, “moving on” and “growing in someone’s heart, not their belly”. While these sentiments are likely well intended, and meant to put adoption in its most positive light, it also has a dismissive quality that does not allow for the true complexity that is relinquishment, adoption and reunion.

Just because my name was changed on a birth certificate, and because I was handed to a childless couple who wanted nothing but a child of their own at 1 month old does not mean I did not experience a loss. A lifetime of wondering, and trying to interpret myself through a mirror that did not properly reflect my unique self as inherited by DNA set me up for perhaps never being able to fully be a part of any family. I always feared I would never have a complete sense of self, and never fully belong. Anywhere.

With one family I share a history, with the other DNA. I never knew until reunion how important and influential DNA is. Raised by linear thinkers, this circuitous brain of mine often felt improperly wired at best and damaged at its worst. My extroverted, overly expressive and impulsive self was reflected back to me as “overbearing”, “selfish” and “unable to be alone”. A good head taller than my adoptive mother, I felt “huge” and “amazon” and like an abnormal ogre. I remember a teacher telling me that my terrible posture was caused by “lack of confidence” and “laziness”. I felt misunderstood, and often inadequate. When I could not read maps and cried over simple math problems, no matter how hard I tried, it was just another proof that I “did not work to potential” (a regular quote on the math and science portions of my report cards). My love of all things religion and religious cult made me appear “flaky”, “gullible” and even “unstable” outside of my true genetic context. Imagine my shock and surprise when I found that these traits of mine that I was trying to find environmental causation for were actually already programmed into me. Out of my control. Out of my adoptive parents’ control. Heck, out of my natural family’s control. The years I spent over analyzing what should have just been assumptions….now, that is loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Not one ounce of me wishes that my life was any other way. I would not have the three children I have now and the life that I love without my adoption. But this does not make adoption a gift to me. It does not make it like a unicorn riding on a cloud. unicorn pillow i poop magicIt is real, complex, multi-layered and I will likely be trying to make heads and tails of it for the rest of my life. Adoption, my adoption, JUST IS. It is not all good, it is not all bad. It is what it is. And it sure is fun to reunite. It is exhilarating to finally see context for my features, my temperament and way of thinking. I would take gaining new siblings as an adult again and again, even with the conflicting life of an adoptee. This adventure of reunion could never have happened without the event that triggered my needing a reunion.

So, I will not try to reflect too much on what could have/should have/would have been. That ship has sailed. I am just going to enjoy it. Knock the unicorn off that cloud. I much prefer it here in the muck and depth of reality. And I am happy that what I found when I finally met my natural family was an openness and willingness to understand this paradox. The 44 year elephant in the room has finally materialized.

I realize now that placing the inflection of a question at the end of a statement an inherited trait…..my sister, biomom and I all do it….although I do it with definitively more alto style diaphragm support (thanks theater, voice training and social smoking!). So, I will refrain from making statements that don’t have room for an open ended question at the end. And most profoundly, I am grateful to finally know my family so I can get the rest of the story.

NOTE from Joani:  Stay tuned for more U&U guest posts on our shared story of reunion.

Thanks be to God.


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Little Sister, the Movie

little-sister-poster

My firstborn Zach Clark is an indie filmmaker. And a successful one at that. He is the writer, director, and editor of all of his films. All five of them have played in festivals all over the world including SXSW. Gifted with his own unique John Waters sensibility, his movies are dark, quirky, funny, and sad.

Zach’s movies are autobiographical but not literally so. The characters are composites and each film a mosaic, pieced together from his experience and boundless creativity.

Zach is also partial to holidays. At 34 he is still just a great big kid at Christmas. His previous film White Reindeer came out in 2013. It is an outrageous, hysterical, and touching film about grief and loss at Christmas. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll feature throughout. The New Yorker called it “and instant holiday cult classic.” It’s available on Hulu! Click here to watch trailer!

And Zach’s newest film, Little Sister, is now playing in 20 cities and available on demand. And the critics are raving about this one too!

“As sweetly funky and improbably pure hearted as its young heroine, a trainee nun and erstwhile Goth making peace with her troubled North Carolina family…” Variety

“A strange spiky movie that refuses to beg for our attention. ‘Little Sister…molds the classic homecoming drama into a quirky reconciliation between faith and family.”
The New York Times

“Nothing less than an up-to-date vision of the new weird America.” The New Yorker

Again autobiographical but far from literal, Zach developed the story with his “creative life partner” and coproducer Melodie Sisk. And the lead characters share our family names and some of our traits — all mixed up.  “Colleen” is the hopeful young nun (played by Addison Timlin.) “Joani” is the manic depressive mom (played by Ally Sheedy. Yes, Ally Sheedy!) And “Jacob” is the wounded older brother (played by Keith Poulson.)

Politics lurk in the background in the election season of 2008. And Zach’s favorite holiday – Halloween plays into the plot:

“October 2008. Young nun Colleen is avoiding all contact with her family, until an email from her mother announces, “Your brother is home.”…Her parents are happy enough to see her but unease and awkwardness abounds. Her brother is living as a recluse in the guest house since returning from the Iraq War…Tenions rise and fall with a little help from Halloween, pot cupcakes, and GWAR. Little Sister is a sad comedy about family — a schmaltz-free, pathos drenched, feel good movie for the little goth girl inside all of us.”

Really timely topics this crazy election cycle, when dark and darkness, depression, and despair pervade our public discourse. Little Sister takes on faith, and family, and politics with a deeply personal lens. Its not a happily ever after movie, but it is a very hopeful one.

Lord, knows we could all use a little hope right now.

Click here to watch in a theater near you!

OR

Click here to watch on demand via Amazon, iTunes, or Vimeo!

And every ticket sale and every rental goes right back to the filmmakers, cast, and crew!

So pop some popcorn, invite over some friends, and watch Little Sister. Its a balm for your soul.

JoaniSign