Category Archives: Scenes & Slices of Life

Interview: Tish Cohen & The Search Angel

In the theme of adoption as it shows up in fiction, I’m continuing my interview series with authors whose novels touch the world of adoption.

TISH COHEN‘s The Search Angel  (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd) releases in July 2013. She’s the bestselling author of both YA and adult novels, including The Truth About Delilah Blue, Inside Out Girl and Commonwealth Writers Prize finalist, Town House. The last two works have been optioned for film.

At what point in your novel process did you know you’d want one of your themes and character(s) touched by adoption?

With The Search Angel, I actually had fully formed characters in my head before I had a theme. My protagonist, Eleanor Sweet, went from being a suicidal librarian to the infertile owner of Boston’s finest baby store after a family member went through the process of looking for her birth parents. This person’s story was particularly poignant to me because what she learned about her birth family was not at all what she expected.

I then became obsessed with the entire adoption process and what each person involved might experience. Can the adopted child ever truly understand her birth mother’s choice? How does the birth mother cope with her choice years later, especially after having subsequent children? What about the adoptive parents—what fears and worries might they face?

As I went further along in my research, I became fascinated by search angels—individuals who dedicate much of their lives to reunite people with their birth families. Search angels have often given up a child of their own and help search when the state or province can no longer be of help. Typically, search angels work for free. That anyone could be so generous has touched my heart in a big way.

So while The Search Angel is about adoption, even more it is about the relationship between Eleanor Sweet and her search angel, Isabelle Santos, and about sometimes families take unexpected forms.

How does anything in your personal or professional life influence the use of adoption in your novel?

I’ve always been fascinated by relationships in which a person’s attachment bond has been severed at some point in childhood. A mother’s decision to give up her baby seems as big a choice as one can make. The lives of everyone involved would ripple with aftershocks from that day forward. I had to explore that.

Also, as I mentioned above, a close family member started the search for her own birth mother when her own child’s health required in-depth family history. What she found was not at all what she expected. There was joy, yes. But there was also a great deal of pain and a truth she never could have foreseen. It was almost as if she faced being given up a second time.

If you’re not touched by adoption in your immediate family, or even if you are, how much, if any, did you feel the need to research adoption?

Aside from the family member I mentioned above, I do have several close friends whose lives have been touched by adoption and all were generous enough to share their experiences. I also spoke to women who have given up infants and read every real-life adoption story I could find, whether in book form or on online adoption support forums. The very best part of my research was speaking to a search angel. Her insight shaped the entire book.

Why adoption? Why this as a life force in your novel and characters?

To give up your own child seems to me the most unselfish thing a parent can do. The decision would be exquisitely painful and complicated. All of my novels so far have featured at least one decision with lifelong effects and I don’t expect that to end anytime soon.


Interview: Randy Susan Meyers & The Comfort of Lies

I’m always interested in “outsider”  themes in fiction. Two authors I’ve met on Facebook weave the theme of adoption into their new novels, and since I’m adopted, this is a topic always of interest to me. I believe it’s important for those of us in the adoption world to support and encourage adoption topics in fiction and let the novelists’ character cast a new light on this.

Randy Susan Meyers, The Comfort of Lies (Feb 2013 Atria) and Tish Cohen, The Search Angel (July 2013 HarperCollins Publishers Ltd)  graciously agreed to interviews. I wanted to learn from each about their choices and process of integrating adoption into their characters lives, and I hope readers hold the same interest.

First up, Randy Susan Meyers. Next week, followed soon by Tish Cohen. Then to follow the week after, I asked JaeRan Kim, a child welfare specialist, researcher, and transracial Korean adoptee, to weigh in about adoption themes in fiction.

* * *

Randy Susan Meyers is the author of The Comfort of Lies (Feb 2013)
and The Murderer’s Daughters (January 2010) Meyers’ novels are informed by her work with families impacted by emotional and family violence.  The Massachusetts Book Awards chose her fiction as  “Must Read Book” and one of the “2011 Ten Best Works of Fiction.”

Q: At what point in your novel process did you know you’d want one of your themes and character(s) touched by adoption? Why adoption? Why this as a life force in your novel and character(s)?

A: Right from the beginning adoption was a theme in my book. The Comfort of Lies begins with Tia, a woman who fell into obsessive love with a man she could never have. Married, and the father of two boys, Nathan was unavailable. When she became pregnant, he disappeared, and she gave up her baby for adoption. Now, five years later she’s trying to connect with her lost daughter and Nathan.

I wanted to write the book from the point of view of everyone involved—as I find it fascinating how everyone’s reality is completely true to them. So the story evolved to include the wife of the married man, Juliette, who five years earlier considered her life ideal: she had a loving family, a solid marriage, and a thriving business. Then she discovered her husband’s affair. He’d promised he’d never stray again and she trusted him. But that was before she knew about the child.

Obsessed with finding out about the child, Juliette seeks the adoptive mother, and that is the third point of view in the book (the biological father became the fourth) Caroline, a dedicated pathologist, reluctantly adopted a baby to please her husband. She prayed her misgivings would disappear; instead, she’s questioning whether she’s cut out for the role of wife and mother.

Once I began living inside Caroline’s head, I became completely involved with questions of adoption, secrets and lies. People often ask where stories come from, and I’ve thought hard about what to say about writing The Comfort of Lies— a novel exploring premises like:

Falling hard for a man who isn’t yours.
Learning your husband has cheated.
Failing at work.
Thinking you’re failing at motherhood.
Unplanned pregnancy.
Giving up a child for adoption.
Struggling with being an adoptive mother.

I didn’t give up a baby for adoption nor adopt a child, but with every pregnancy scare, I wondered about choices I might make. Adoption? Failing at work? Infidelity? I struggled in ways that allowed The Comfort of Lies to come frighteningly alive in my mind. I haven’t suffered through all my characters’ crises but you don’t have to be buried alive to write about an avalanche–but it helps to have been stuck in an elevator.

All parenthood is complicated and begs honest examination. I had my first child at twenty-one. I barely remember being an adult when I wasn’t a parent. As I began reading memoir after memoir of about adoption—from every point of view—I began to feel how much of a complicating overlay it brings on an already layered life change. The Comfort of Lies asks if having children defines us, if that’s different for adoptive parents, and what does it mean for mothers and fathers whose give up their sons and daughters for adoption.

Caroline hates the routines of motherhood—does this make her an awful woman? Does the fact that she’s an adoptive mother make that feeling more muddled? Does anyone enjoy all moments of parenthood? Tia, who gave up her child, wonders if she can ever claim herself as a mother. Nathan learns about his child when she’s already five years old—can one conjure up instant love? Juliette feels a connection to the child, despite not having any claim or biological connection to her.

All these characters wrestle with questions of adoption. Everyone in The Comfort of Lies is forced to weigh the rights of a five-year-old girl versus their own desires. Collisions between the needs of children and the wishes of parents are sadly common. On whose side will the decision-making arrow fall? Should parents hold secrets from their children? If they do, is this ultimately for the comfort of the adult or the child—what price do we pay for hiding truth from our sons and daughters?

Q: How does anything in your personal or professional life influence the use of adoption in your novel? 

A: I worked for many years with children, as a director of a community center in Boston, and as a director of a summer camp and after school program. The children who touched me were from every spectrum of every definition of ‘family.’ From this, and from having family who was adopted, the topic was of great interest to me.

As an adult I found out (from my cousin) how much damage could be done by secretive attitudes towards adoption and biological parents and grandparents. I found the ways in which she was hurt to be heartbreaking. I had a cluster of her pain in my soul when I wrote about how all the characters were unwittingly hurting the child.

Q:  If you’re not touched by adoption in your immediate family, or even if you are, how much, if any, did you feel the need to research adoption?

Plenty! I read (as mentioned above) innumerable memoirs. (Maybe 20-30?) I find memoirs a fantastic source of immediacy and emotion when I am researching—and find that I can reach a broader spectrum than I could simply by speaking to a few individuals. I also spent days and days on websites, and contacted folks who had sites that touched me.  In addition, I read straight nonfiction research books.

Q: What question(s) do you wish I’d asked?

A:  “Was there a moment in the book where a character’s (and your) thoughts about open adoption solidified?”

As I wrote the book, I became, as I tend to do, each of my characters. Whatever point of view I wrote from—I inhabited that person. Caroline, the adoptive mother, loves her daughter and husband, but is increasingly sure she is failing at the role of wife and mother. During the course of the book she moves from a frozen acceptance of what she views as not deserving to feel the same ambivalence all mother’s feel (positive she should show only gratitude) to a gradual understanding that adoptive parents have a nuanced range of emotions. She finally allow herself to examine all sides of open adoption —and formulate a philosophy, where formerly she wouldn’t even allow herself to think about the topic.

All is Well

Around this time of year I remember my mother, who died on Thanksgiving right after we gathered as a family from around the country to sit together at the table with our parents. It’s not as grim as it sounds, to mourn someone on a holiday. Actually, it’s life affirming.

My last effort to ‘save’ her from the cancer that had diminished her to what looked like 60 lbs, diminished her fierce spirit and love for life, was to wave a spoonful of whipped cream near her mouth. She hadn’t eaten in days. “Stop it,” she whispered.

I love that she half-scolded me about trying to force something sweet into her. To this day, whipped cream is one of my favorite foods.

Now I know she was preparing for her death. Now I know that her physical body didn’t need nourishment for what she was about to accomplish in the next hour after dinner, her dying.

Around this time of year I honor everything I received from my mother’s mothering and in turn, passing on the best parts to my two daughters. It’s a privilege to thread this love through our generations.

The nourishment I receive every day from my family and friends, this I don’t need a holiday to feel grateful for because simple daily moments make for long-lasting gratitude. A note from my daughter, for example.

Last night after a late return home from an evening with friends, I discovered this note at the top of the stairs outside one of my daughter’s bedrooms. She reminded me about how nourishing it is, the power of vulnerability to open our hearts and say – I need…, I want..

This is what feeds me when I mourn my losses. Authentic vulnerability, and I admire it—in children, in friends who hold the courage to discover their vulnerable selves, even when I recognize it in myself. Surrounded by vulnerability and finding it in myself, this is when I know all is well.

* * *

One of my favorite poems about loss:

Death is Nothing at All

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.

All is well.

-Canon Henry Scott-Holland, 1847-1918, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral

To Create Ritual

Social rituals fascinate me, and I’ve learned a lot about their history as I prepare tutu materials for an upcoming workshop with incarcerated mothers and their daughters.

Rituals have been a featured part of culture for tens of thousands of years, dating back to Paleolithic times with their burial rituals. Even in today’s culture, jury trials, executions, academic conferences, all rituals filled with symbolic acts set by regulations and tradition.

Malawi initiation ritual

We live with ritualistic rites of passage every day: confirmation, B’nai Mitzvahs, oaths of allegiance, dedication ceremonies, presidential inaugurations, coronations, marriages, funerals, sports events. Even everyday actions like shaking hands or bowing in some cultures serve as ritual greetings.

Tutus Go to Prison

Which brings me to my prison work and its latest incarnation  — a tutu-making workshop with incarcerated women and their daughters where they’re allowed to visit.

My preparation began to feel ritualistic, partly because of the various prison requirements I’m required to follow. Each prison in each state differs in regulation for what goes in and what comes out with me. Sometimes I can’t bring in a single piece of paper and am allowed just the clothes on my back and even those need to follow regulations so the colors I wear won’t match inmate jumpsuit colors.

Preparing for the tutu workshops has delivered tactical challenges. In order of appearance over the months it’s taken for me to prepare:

First, it’s one big math problem: How many yards of tulle and ribbon to purchase for X number of girls and their mothers? And how many yards of what colors, and which neon colors go with what base color?

Then, not the smallest of challenges, how to finance it all since I’m not a prison-sponsored budget line item. Gratitude for all who’ve donated in many ways to assist and support.

Next, how do I prepare all the materials so no scissors or glue will be used in prison? Then how to kit them, and package and ship these masses of tulle and ribbon so they not only arrive with me, but also pass security as I enter the prison.

My answer, at least for this time: Tutu Pods. I’ve done my math, although I almost blew it in the middle of preparing the material because I tossed my worksheet where I figured out how many yards per mother-daughter pair.

So in the middle of it all I hauled in one of my daughters to help me think it through. We rigged out a new approach, added new colors, and no one will know but us how I almost drowned in stress because I thought I’d run out of colors.

I envisioned myself inside, handing out these kits and at the last moment, one last girl empty handed because I didn’t bring enough. But I’ve had to stop worrying about what won’t work and focus on what will go right.

Now it’s down to the wire. The Tutu Pods are almost finished, final touches ready for my travels next week to the Baltimore prison, all part of a tutu workshop which I’ll incorporate into my speaking engagement, which now I’m calling UNTITLED.

Thanks to my friend Barbara, I stopped trying to figure out what to call my speaking engagements. Although I am searching for a subtitle.  UNTITLED: something something. But I’m too busy with tutus and speech writing to figure this out now. My friend also reminded me how sewing circles are part of women’s history as our way to share stories and bond. Also a ritual.

Next for strategic tutu planning, I’ve had to flow with the multiple regulation changes, from, “Yes, the mothers can keep the tutus they make in their cells,” to “No, not an option,” to “Yes,” and back to, “No.” I get it, long strands of ribbon and tulle aren’t allowed.

As much as I want the mother-daughter pairs to each keep a tutu after they separate, I accept I don’t make the rules. My energy is used best other than resisting what I know I can’t change.

Unlocking a Ritual

I’ve spent weeks wondering how the mothers can keep a symbol of their shared time. What beyond their memories can they take back to their cells?

Then something struck me as I finished hot gluing the last pansy on a polka dot ribbon waistband before I kit the dozens of Tutu Pods, which I won’t seal because I expect each one of them will be searched and disassembled.

If the women can’t take any part of a tutu with them to their living quarters, what can they have? A moment. No one can withhold a memory, a moment. But what moment can they experience which will pass every security measure?

Why not create a ritual around a moment? But what? I’d need it simple, prison-approved, and easy to transport across country.

Why not flowers, each mother and her daughter with an individual silk pansy? Also my favorite flower — especially the real kind in dirt. But I use silk for this project.

Why can’t the mother-daughter pairs give each other a flower? So I snipped hundreds of silk pansy petals, a yellow-purple color set to match what the girls’ will assemble on the tutus they take home. They’ll each hand their mother a matching silk pansy.

Then I clipped solid purple pansy petals so the mothers can pass their daughters a separate color all their own.

Before I leave for this trip, I’ll look up the symbolic meaning of the colors purple and yellow and also learn more about the symbolism of flowers, so I can share this in the workshop. For sure flowers mean growth, the promise of a blossom. Just as these girls and their mothers hold the same promise.

A Private Moment of Freedom

Somehow I’ll make this all a ritual to serve as a bridge and bond between the mothers and daughters, although I don’t know the full details yet because it’s in process.

Like every time I’m in a prison, my work floats in limbo until the moment I’m inside with the women and I try to sense their needs. With any audience, I do my best to tune into them, not just myself.

I do my own style of improv in prisons because I never know what a shift captain will allow for what I carry, wear, how close I get to the women, shake hands or hug or not. It’s not my house, not my rules. But when I’m inside I’m at home because at one time prison was just that for me, safe and secure – home.

If all goes as planned, my pansy ritual will help bond the mothers and daughters long after they separate. If the mothers can’t keep the pansies in their cells, then in their memory and hearts they can hold the moment they received these petals from their girls.

We’re free to hold our memory, our moments. And when I get home from it all, I’m going to ground myself with a walk around the pansy gardens in the Arboretum and treasure the privilege I’ve been given to build creative moments of hope, learning, and love where least expected.


P.S. Next in the line-up of what to solve: how do I transport these? Too late to ship and too late to cost out which shipping method. The airline will charge for a large ship-on suitcase or box, not for weight but because of size. I may pack this all in a giant duffle bag. Stayed tuned for the results.

* * *

I’m curious to learn what, if any, rituals you hold for yourself. A few of my simple daily rituals: I brew tea in the morning. I also sit down to every dinner with my family. I don’t call these habits because they’re conscious acts to enhance my life.
Do we need rituals at all? Did you grow up with any which you discarded as soon as you could in your adult life? What ones have you created for yourself?

The Doll Shoe and the Straight Edge Razor

This solo plastic miniature doll shoe, so darling it makes me want to hug it all day, turned up today in a box where I dug around for some files.

Somehow saved from one of my childhood dolls which I never played with, I never consciously kept the shoe. It just keeps showing up. I’ve no idea what happened to the doll.

One inch long, the lonely plastic shoe survived moves to several countries and through numerous states and cities. I used to be nomadic. Apparently nomadic with a single doll shoe.

At the same time my heart breaks today. I heard about … Continue reading

Places I Write

Here’s where I write. Where do you do it?

I write outside the gates of the women’s prison in the Appalachia Mountains.

I write in the driver’s seat of my rented Ford Fusion in the prison parking lot and I can’t crank the key, not yet, still traumatized by my first return to my first home.

I write behind my eyelids  while prison guards search me everywhere.

I write for my freedom in the Super 8 down the hill from another prison, another state, more states, thousands locked up.

I write off the sweat of my heritage, all those I never met but their scent, their labor,
their losses, their love seeps into and out of me, salty drops on my forehead.

I write under a blood-red moon, its beam carved into the edge of my soul.

I write suspended in air, a trance at dawn in a dream sheet of velvet like a magic carpet until the pad of little girls’ feet on kitchen tile downstairs draws me out because
they’re hungry.

I write for them, my daughters’ future, their femaleness, for their voices to rise unlocked.

The unPrison Project: Freedom on the Inside

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is my journey now, to walk out of silence and secrecy and use my voice. Not always easy for one like myself who spent many years silent, sometimes mute, and always with a secret held from the world: my prison birth, one of many secrets, many stigmas which I thought made me less than others.

Not anymore though. I’ve come to believe we create other prisons for ourselves and my story just happens to be one of extremes. I’m hard at work on writing my memoir so I can share my journey with you.

Fast forward a few years. I’m now Continue reading

The Mother Who Waited

The week of Thanksgiving, and I pause to recall the five days of solitude I took years ago at a retreat run by Franciscan nuns. I also joined them in their vow of silence for those days.

I committed myself to frequent silent retreats then, to write with more seriousness, by now relieved to end my long-lasting rebellion against my parents and their careers, both English professors and writers.

This particular retreat, in the dead of winter in Wisconsin woods, landed me in a one-room cabin heated by a wood stove. I’m a city girl and had to learn how to keep the wood dry and ready to stoke the fire. I loved the challenge, and rather than write that week, I meditated about my mother and our battle of a relationship.

This is the mother who endured a few decades of my rejection as I reminded her she wasn’t my “real” mother. This is the mother whom I plotted to gas to death, and also the woman whose face my fist grazed before it punctured sheet rock, my every bone shattered in my right hand.

This is the mother who stood by me no matter what, the mother who waited, as did my father, for me to come out the other side of hate, fury, and pain.

My parents adopted me around three or four from foster care. Before foster care I’d spent a year with my other mother in prison. When authorities removed me around age one, I unconsciously held out for over twenty-five years for my prison mother to “come get me,” held out without knowing it.

Fast forward through a disturbed childhood and a more troubled life as a teen and adult, a life of drugs, crime, and violence. When my mother was in her 70s and I was thirty-something, I finally “hired” her as my Mother. At last the girl my parents adopted, turned into their daughter.

This is the mother I never mention on-line. I don’t Tweet about her, or blog with stories about us (the way I do about my prison mother.) Not exactly a Facebook status update kind of woman.

At last I learned to release the past, to accept what I imagined for years would never happen — my return to live in prison with my other mother. At last I opened my heart to the woman who loved me day in and day out, even when, and probably especially when, I’d been estranged and absent for years.

Along with acceptance, gratitude replaced anger. Compassion and forgiveness healed our wounds. I learned the art of forgiving. I forgave my mothers, forgave myself.  The journey to achieve our redemption, my own and ours as a family, is the story of the memoir I’m working on.

For the two years up until this retreat, almost every weekend I flew to visit my mother, now in chemo treatments for ovarian cancer. I had to catch up for a lot of years. We’d sit and read magazines, watch TV, and nap together. I massaged her swollen feet, puffed from cancer now in her liver. We talked, something new for us.

I flew in on the Thanksgiving after my silent retreat in the Wisconsin woods and my mother sat, almost a pile of bones, in her wheelchair through the whole dinner. She scolded me when I tried to force feed her whipped cream. Some hours after I arrived that day, right after our family feast, my older brother wheeled her back to bed. She died in my hands, my father and brother on the other side of her hospital bed.

I’m grateful for our victory, the six or so years of our mother-daughterness. Without this, I’d be a different person, not a woman speaking in prisons, not a writer. Probably not a mother myself. She’s the woman who taught me to see humor even in the darkest of moments.

I’m convinced my mother waited until Thanksgiving, waited for my arrival, to die. Every Thanksgiving week I honor her, my mother’s stamina, her maternal endurance to wait for me for thirty years to accept her.

Sometimes attachment takes a long time. This is the woman I call Mother.