Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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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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Scarlet Letter, No More

Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

For 45 years, I have locked my secret away in a vault.

Lead lined, buried deep, for me and me alone, always to keep and never to tell.

Under lock and key, it seemed safer that way.

Forty-five years ago, just sixteen years old, I went looking for love, wherever I could find it.

And it wasn’t at home.

Outside looking in, I was Doctor Peacock’s daughter, well to do, parochial school girl, goody two shoes, and middle child.

Inside looking out, I parented myself from a very early age. While my alcoholic bipolar mom was behind closed doors and my workaholic dad was forever making rounds, I learned to take care of Joani.

So I found love in the boy next door. Both refugees from our dysfunctional households, close friends, we clung to one another for love and support.

And then I was “late”. O my God, O my God, what have I done?

1972. Alone and disowned by my parents, I had become a disgrace. A shame on my family, impossible to erase.

Should we have a shotgun wedding? My parents said no. His parents said yes. But both sets agreed that teenage parents, we were destined to be.

But I was a minor, just a child myself. And though I had conceived this child, I could not possibly conceive of  being a mom at 17. No, not yet. No, not now. No visible means of support. No diploma. No degree. Not even a bank account to call my own.

I was terrified. Out and out terrified.

A junior in high school, at Immaculata Prep, I hid my belly beneath a sweater buttoned up well into the spring. And on May 19th of ’72, the priest having refused us, we were married at the courthouse by the Justice of the Peace. I bought a calico hippy peasant dress for the occasion but my mother insisted I wear white.

I might, as well, have worn a Scarlet Letter.

scarlet-letter-two

And though, I knew I could not keep her, I also knew I had to bring her into this world.

The social worker at the adoption agency, whose name I wish I could remember, mothered me three trimesters through. But it was 1972. There was no Planned Parenthood. No birthing classes. No Lamaze. Just a stick figure pamphlet from the Medicaid clinic.

I remember going to the public library to find a picture book, so I could see and understand what was happening inside of me. Blushing at the circulation desk, I was terrified to actually check it out.

September 28th of ’72, in a cab all by myself, I made it to my final appointment at Georgetown Hospital. Already in labor, the nurse rushed me to the delivery room. No time for drugs. I did nothing but push.

And out she came. Purple and slippery and squawking and full of life. Shaking and in shock, I could not bring myself to hold her. I knew that if I did, I risked not giving her up.

I had no plans to even name her, for she was never going to be mine. But the birth certificate sat on my tray table. I had to fill in the blanks. Elizabeth Catherine. Or was it Elizabeth Beatrice? I can’t quite remember.

But I did visit the nursery, though I did not go inside.

“Please, hold her up to the window for me, so that I can see her before I go.”

“Goodbye, little Elizabeth. I wish you a good life. I wish you the best it can be.”

And I have never regretted this decision. I am proud of that child that brought this child into the world in 1972.

So I signed the papers, a sealed adoption. She would never know us and we would never know her. It seemed best for all concerned. And what did I know? I was only seventeen.

So I locked the secret up tight and threw away the key. Grieving was a luxury, I could not afford. Traumatized teenagers, kicked to the curb, we had to survive.

So I skipped my senior year and a year or so later, I made it to CUA. We got jobs in a preschool and the tiniest efficiency you have ever seen.

And now, to make a long story short, we took ten years to grow up. Built a marriage. Built a home. Built a life. And ten years later, in 1982, we had Zach and then Colleen and then Jacob.

All three babies made possible by Elizabeth, the baby I never held in my arms.

And even to my three children, she was a secret. Locked up tight. Never to tell. Why? What good would it do? What would I say? What purpose would it serve? Forty-five years is a very long time. It seemed the vault would hold forever.

And then she found me.

Through a DNA test on Ancestry.com (my brother’s account), just before Christmas, she found me.

An emotional tsunami broke loose in my head. Pummeled by waves, I was certain, I’d drown. Buoyed by therapy, I did not.

Rebecca Dragon is her name. Mother of three. Lives on a farm in Vermont.Spiritual seeker. Russian Orthodox, by choice. Theater major. She found and read my blog. My daughter’s too.

Excited beyond words, she had found her tribe.

Terrified beyond words, I froze, not knowing what I would do.

But, of course, I did.

The next morning, I called her. The hardest phone call I have ever made in my life. We talked for half an hour. Crying. Incredulous. Laughing.  And now, we have talked many more times. Texting, emailing, Face Booking, too.

She is happy, healthy, and whole. A down to earth, sort of off-the-grid parent, she home schools her three children. Crafty, she spins and knits. Comfortable in the kitchen, she makes real food from scratch. She is snarky and hysterical, theological and spiritual. And a blogger, herself, twice over. An urban expat, living on a rural route, she grew up in D.C.

Though those domestic genes are certainly not mine, she reminds me so much of me. Different, of course, taller, green eyes, and a different nose. She is definitely one of us. Primarily a Peacock, I would vainly say.

DNA is much more powerful than I ever could have imagined.

And now my children know and have happily connected with her, too. And my siblings know. And my coworkers know.  And my friends.

And now you know too.

Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, I fly to Vermont, to meet Rebecca and her children: Bella, Jude, and Meir. And her husband too.

I am going as “just Joani.” I am not “mom” or “grandma”. Rebecca’s fabulous parents, alone, deserve these titles. I did not raise her as my own. I like to call her “my long lost offspring” and as for me, maybe “biomom”, at least for now.

But we are definitely biologically joined at the hip. And I really, really like her. And I look forward to knowing her and her family, more and more.

So the “Peacock and the Dragon” will meet and we’ll take it from there.

No more “Mea maxima culpa.”

Scarlet Letter, no more.

(And meet Rebecca! Yes, also a blogger @ The Wee Dragon!)
JoaniSign

 

 


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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

 

 


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Bipolar Love: The Tale of Archie & Amelie

archie and amelie book cover

“On December 5, 1900, the New York Herald headlines screamed:”

“CHANLER ESCAPES

Amelie Rives First Husband

IS OUT OF ASYLUM

Search Fails to Find Wealthy Demented Man

Who Left Bloomingdale Institution…

Former Wife, Princess Troubetzkoy, Also Insane.”

This is the dark and delicious tale of doomed passion: meticulously researched and wonderfully told in Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age by Donna M. Lucey.

Archie is John Armstrong Chanler, born in 1862, and heir to the estate of his great –grandfather John Jacob Astor of New York.

Amelie Rives, born in 1863, is the goddaughter of Robert E. Lee and descendant of a storied first family of Virginia.

Archie’s family fortune was built on the fur trade, clear-eyed capitalism, and Presbyterian rectitude. Orphaned at a tender age, Archie and his siblings were raised by committee. “A wild and willful bunch” they were tamed by “nannies, tutors, and distant guardians.”

The eldest and legally responsible for his younger siblings, Archie, at Eton honed a refined and reasonable self-control — while underneath simmered his literary and artistic appetites.

A nephew of Julia Ward Howe, a progressive scion of the salon, Archie was intellectually curious and cautiously broad-minded. A romantic and eccentric soul, he was also an inventive young man full of ideas and boundless generosity.

Amelie Rives of Castle Hill was a gifted young writer — gifted — with a dark sensuality. The provocative prose of her first novel, The Quick or the Dead?, garnered her both notoriety and the notice of the literary lions of her day – including the likes of Oscar Wilde and Willa Cather.

Amelie’s Virginia home had “an air of civilized taste and ancient leisure.” Her noble ancestors included revolutionary war heroes and ambassadors to France. But the “War between the States” left the family homestead in tatters. Her father, a civil engineer, like a nomad wandered from post to post to keep his family financially afloat.

And so women, strong women, ruled the roost at Castle Hill. Captured in an 1880 photograph “Amelie, a young beauty at seventeen, stands behind the powerful figures of her grandmother and her granite faced Aunt Ella – as if she were next in line in a dynasty.”

Seductively, Ameilie wielded both her pen and her person to woo the men in her life. Though a woman of the Gilded Age, she boldly bucked the constricting conventions of her time.

Amelie cast aside her corset and wore exotic flowing gowns. Described as “a sizzling vessel of molten lava”, she was also surprisingly religiously devout. Most passionate and erotic in her prose, she made her reviewers blush and made her suitors swoon.

Archie madly, deeply, hopelessly pursued her. After three persistent marriage proposals, Amelie accepted and they were engaged.

Hot and cold, like fire and ice, their eight-year love affair was doomed to failure. The first two years the couple skipped across Europe — settling down long enough only to become unsettled.

Amelie seemed to love Archie the most when he was absent. And when he was absent, Archie was a tortured soul never quite knowing how to rekindle Amelie’s ardor.

Eight years after their nuptials at Castle Hill, Amelie runs off with a dashing and penniless prince, a Russian royal named Troubetzkoy.

Divorced and disgraced, Archie, still hopelessly in love with Amelie, supports her until the day he dies.

The truth be told, they drove each other mad.

Separately they suffer bouts of insanity. Some real and some feigned.

Amelie is prone to melancholy and takes up some unusual cures in the sanitariums of the Gilded Age.

Archie, wrongly committed by his scheming siblings for seven years, escapes the asylum only to descend deeper into a manic kind of madness. He becomes a prolific automatic writer of the self-published kind. A most generous and penniless philanthropist, he ends his days scribbling his name on the walls.

Bipolar love.

Archie, posthumously, is believed to have come by his bipolar disorder quite honestly. It runs in the family. A gift that keeps giving.

Amelie’s madness is of a similar kind. Euphoric, grandiose, verbose, and highly creative, she cannot help but crash from time to time.

Their marriage was both heaven and hell: Brief episodes of bliss, bright bursts of passion. Disrupted by storms, overwhelmed by sadness.

It could not possibly last. And indeed, it did not.

The madness of such love, can it possibly be worth it?

My sensible side says “NO!”, of course. Who wants to end up on the shores of life an emotional wreck?

But my bipolar soul, the manic-depressive me, screams “YES!”

Let me have a mad, deep, intoxicating, engaging, infuriating, invigorating, reckless, mad, mad love affair…

at least one, or two, or three.

Good for a novel, a movie, a play, a memoir. Good for some crazy tall tales to tell my grandchildren some day.

And maybe good for a blog post — or two, or three.

Who knows? Stay tuned, U&U followers.

I’ll keep you up to date one week at a time – – at Sex & The Single Vicar!

JoaniSign