Monday, July 18, 2011

When I was a boy

(Inspired from a writing workshop, of an essay that started with "When I was a boy...")

When I was a boy, I wanted to see the world. Bit by bit, it happened. In 1981, at the age of ten I flew with my mother from our suburban square home in Parsippany, New Jersey, to an unmapped life in Portland, OR. She, leaving her husband by choice, me leaving the only father I had known, in confusion.

In our first apartment of many, my mother divided the middle room with a batik curtain so that we could have separate “bedrooms,” my bed being a bunk over the piano across from the desk. She started playing guitar at Irish music sessions in a dark loud bar called they called the East Ave. I would do my homework at the booth while she played. At home, I would drift off to sleep while listening to the music being played by my mother and her friends on the other side of the wall in the kitchen: guitar, fiddle, bones, bohran. Sometimes waking up from their laughter deep in the night, and being late to school the next day.

I spent my adolescent summers drifting around, smoking pot, hitchhiking. I found my way to Fairbanks, Alaska, living on my own at the age of fifteen, more or less – I stayed on the couch of a friend of my mother’s, Tim, whom she had contacted when she found out where I was. I would spend my evenings in the “Buffalo Nickel” a smoky bar near Tim’s house. I think the staff let me hang out there, even thought I was underage, because they knew I had nowhere else to go.

Growing tired of the cold and the dark, I hopped in my friend’s truck one day without having planned to, and four days later found myself in San Diego. The sun felt strange on my naked skin after its year-long hibernation under layers of clothes. I noticed I could still taste the salt on my lips hours after coming out of the ocean. Doing nothing felt like a good day’s work.

I had always played music. I wrote my first song when I was three and could play guitar by five, though I hadn’t had any formal lessons. So in San Diego, I started busking for money on the corners by the beach, where the tourists would be passing. I made enough money to keep me going and had enough left over for drinks that night at the session. I would find my way home to Portland, maybe even to Jersey – sometime – but for now I would see where the world led me.

But that was when I was a boy. That was the life that may have been, had my life been what my birthfather was told: that my mother had me, that I was a boy, and that she married someone else. My birthfather worried that the husband may have thought the baby was his. So any thoughts of seeing the baby again were relinquished and he was left only with the imaginings of what my life might be.

In fact, my birthmother had me, but I was a girl, and she didn’t keep me, but gave me up for adoption. She did get married, so soon after my birth that her breasts leaked milk in her wedding dress. But her husband, Bob, had known the baby wasn’t his. He had told her she could keep the baby, but she had decided already and kept with her instinct.

Had my life been the life told to my birthfather, I imagine I would be much different than I am today. I probably would have been more confident in my creativity. I would have grown up surrounded by musicians and artists; rather than by my adoptive parents, who appreciated art from a distance. I would have been playing music from the beginning, naturally, rather than taking piano lessons but giving it up because I never felt able to make it my own.

I do, however, imagine I would be less confident in other ways had I been raised in my “birthfamily.” My adoptive family had the stability of a two-parent home in a square house on a square lot in New Jersey, one house my whole life. My dad worked as a chemist, my mom as a homemaker, with dinner on the table every night at 6pm sharp. College was planned for and paid for. I was brought up in the certainty of being loved and wanted and accepted. Certainly, that brings gifts not easily defined.

But what is hard for me to imagine is the two me’s – the boy who plays music on the beach and the girl quietly writing alone in her room – being, in fact, the same person.


to view my birthmother's blog on the same topic, go to mothertone


Thoughts? Reflections? Opinions?

Please comment!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Eighteen Years Later

I've been struggling about writing about my beach weekend with Kate. I think I'm trying to make too much out of it, trying to give it meaning, but I haven't really sorted that out yet.

I was 18 when I met Kate (well, except for when I was born, of course, but it's not like I remember that meeting). Meeting was brief – a first meeting for a day, and then a get together at her sister’s house another day, and then nothing for four years outside of letters. But the letters were good for me. I wasn’t ready to fully step into her world. It was more manageable for me to ease into it, facing wave by wave. A letter would come in, I would read it. Then, I would wait to respond to it in my own time, and when it was ready, send it out. Until the next wave came in, I was on land, at home, where the two worlds meet but remain distinctly different – land and sea. 

Here I was, deep at sea now, having come to her home, Oregon, the other side of the world from Jersey. And now it was refreshing to be able to talk together, instead of write letters and be able to take in the wholeness of the sea of her world surrounding me. Her world was Portland, Oregon, and I had come out after graduating from college to spend the summer with her. Not long after I arrived, we were off to the coast for a weekend. A co-worker of Kate's paid for a weekend at a beach house for us to have some time together at the coast. It was an amazing gesture, that someone who was a stranger to me would be so generous.

I was excited, but nervous, so I was relieved when I found out that friend of Kate's (a guy / fellow musician) was going to drive us and that my brand-spanking new "boyfriend," Felim, could come along that first night. It took the pressure off all the time just being me and Kate together, alone. It's funny, I had a lot of time alone with Kate in Portland on my visit, but something about being alone together at the beach felt more intense.

The Oregon coast was completely different from the Jersey shore that I grew up with. Kate, who had also grown up in Jersey, had said it took her a long time to get used to the ocean being on her right when driving south. I was taken aback that you can't smell the ocean the way you can in Jersey, when you can smell the sea long before you can see it. And there are the obvious differences - the Jersey shore is a party atmosphere where you pay to get on the beach, it's loud and fun and crazy. The Oregon Coast is stunning, beautiful and fierce - where nature is wild rather than the people.

We settled into the beach house and the next morning the guys left and Kate and I were alone together. We just hung out there on the deck overlooking the ocean and watched the water and talked. There were hours of time we just spent talking. While we talked, I saw my first whale (and then many whales) that trip. It made me think of sea-monsters, imagining the first sailors seeing a hump of black rise out and spout water only to be followed by another hump rising a hundred yards later, and then again to finish with a splash of a tail. We hadn't left the house that whole day, other than a trip to the market on the corner to get some wine, and it was perfect. 

But somehow in the course of things, we invited the guys to come back the next night. I don't remember how it happened, but I feel Kate had suggested it and I jumped at the chance to have them come back. I remember opening the door to Felim with him having a huge smile on his face, and I'm sure mine mirrored his.

Even though I had agreed, maybe even persuaded Kate to invite the guys back, I felt resentful that she invited them back. She was no more to blame than I was, but it didn’t stop me from being bitter about it.

It took 18 more years for us to take a trip alone together again. And it wound up being just a few miles away from where we stayed the first trip. The second trip was a grand gesture of Kate's to whisk me away for my fortieth (ack!) birthday. She had planned to take me to Victoria, B.C., but the place she had in mind had closed. It worked out to have it at the coast, and I don't think she even put together all the syncronicities of it - that it was 18 years later, and just miles away from where we first were.

And where I get stuck is trying to work out the difference in it all. What does a trip for a mother and daughter newly in reunion look like copared to ones who have been in reunion for more than 18 years?
The structure was very much the same - relaxing, reading, and lots and lots of talking and all the talking is deep and important and random. But, it felt much different, and that's the hard part to get across.

Who we were was very different - Kate was 41, single, a musician, and living in an apartment with her day job as a secretary. I was 22, free-floating, waitressing, with a new unexpected boyfriend and I had no idea what my life was going to look like 18 months from then much less 18 years later.

Eighteen years later, I'm the age Kate was then, but I'm married, with two kids, a house in Portland that was 2 miles away from Kate's house and miles away from who Kate was at this age. I desperately miss that 22 year-old self and all her hopes and dreams and hope to make her proud one of these days when I've finished with all this domesticity.

Kate is 59 and has sold her house and business and sort of free-floating the way I was then - trying to find her next phase of life, not quite sure what her life is going to look like in 18 months or 18 years.

And Kate and I are still getting to know each other. I think what was most significant about this last trip, our second trip alone together, was that we are still getting to know each other, and that we are still somewhat unsure of each other, but we're used to it now. The first trip, we couldn't quite face that. By the second trip, we had gotten comfortable with the discomfort.


to view my birthmother's blog on the same topic, go to mothertone


Thoughts? Reflections? Opinions?

Please comment!