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PEPPERWOOD 001a

Vince, Me, Tim, Tanya (Vince’s sister) and Mr. Peabody, I mean my brother Dan looking at the water bugs instead of the camera lens.

Everyone needs a Vince in their lives.

In 1969 my family moved to a quiet neighborhood in Grants Pass with the Mayberry-like name of Pepperwood Drive.  It was a cul-de-sac neighborhood bordering St. Anne’s Catholic Church, Lincoln Elementary School and Beacon Hill.  Did I mention it was Mayberry-like?

When we moved into our split level house there was only one other house built among the dozen or so empty lots.  On moving day I remember sitting in the front cab of the truck clutching tight my Valley of the Rogue Dairy milk carton with the single green shard of a sunflower sprout poking through the brown soil.  A year earlier Martin Luther King had been shot.  Not long after Robert Kennedy was dead.  The Vietnam War raged. But I knew none of this.  I was five years old and I had a newly sprouting sunflower plant to protect.

When we pulled around to the back of the house I carefully climbed out of the cab of the moving truck, walked up to the backdoor of our house, and entered my new home.  As I  gently placed my milk carton planter on the southern facing kitchen window I glanced down into the backyard and saw my dad talking with another man.  Standing next to him was a boy, just about my age.  A friend!  Although I can’t remember, I can almost guarantee I darted down the stairs and out the back door as fast as my red Keds could take me.  Within two heartbeats I was face to face with the most genuine beautiful smile of a boy who would come to be my Pepperwood Drive best friend.  He was my Vince.

We spent that first summer digging in the dirt, throwing clods of compacted mud against the pavement and watching them explode, blowing bubbles on the top step of his deck, running through sprinklers, looking at books.   We spent the summer being five year olds.  Everything I did, Vince was right beside me.  Everything he did, I was right beside him.  He was my best friend after all.

Vince didn’t go to school with me that fall and that really bothered me.   But his absence during the school day  didn’t stop me from coming home everyday with my Dr. Seuss books and  sit on his front step and read to him and share with him my day at Lincoln Elementary School.  We watched Sesame Street together.  We laughed at the Muppets.  He loved The Count. I loved Oscar the Grouch.   He was my best friend after all.

As time passed Pepperwood Drive began to fill up with more and more houses and with those houses more and more kids.  Soon Vince and my posse of two evolved into a gang of many.  Erin. Erica. Ronny B., and of course my brothers, Tim and Dan.  On any given summer day we would be out the door by 9 AM  building forts in the open fields, shooting baskets in the neighborhood basketball hoop, racing homemade boats down the Tokay canal,  and playing wiffle ball games in the middle of Pepperwood Drive.  Vince was right beside us, that is, until we organized a bicycle circus and realized Vince didn’t know how to ride a bike.  So, we, the neighborhood kids taught him.  He was my best friend after all. PEPPERWOOD 014

Vince was exceptional.  He learned how to read.  He learned how to ride a bike.  He learned how play the drums.   He learned how to annoy the hell out of me.  Not all the time, but  there was that period of  time when  he was fixated on the word cigarette and he would say it over and over to annoy me.  I would tell him that wasn’t a word he should be saying.  He would smile at me and say it again. I would tell him to stop.  He would smile and say it again.  We would go back and forth until I would run away crying with my palms covering my ears as he chased me from behind chanting, “Cigarette, cigarette, cigarette, cigarette, cigarette, cigarette….”  He was my best friend after all.

A few years after I started college he went through a rough patch and was placed in a ward at the Oregon State Mental Hospital.   It broke my heart that he was in a place so unfamiliar to him with the faces of strangers sharing his day.  There was a reason he was there.  I understood that.  But it still broke my heart.   He could have visitors so I drove up to Salem a few times during his brief stay  and I spent the afternoon with him. We played ping pong.  He and I were a winning doubles team in ping pong.  To  this day, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do is walk through the two sets of locked doors after my visits, away from my friend, as he stood watching me from the other side of the glass windows at the state hospital. He was my best friend after all.

If you haven’t already guessed through my words and pictures, Vince has Down syndrome.

Forty five summers have passed since Vince and my first summer.  During that time I became a teacher. I married. I had a family. Through specialized vocational training Vince became a custodian and lives independently in an apartment.  I saw him a few years ago when I went home to visit my mom and his smile went straight to my heart, just like it did the summer day we met, so many years ago.

Everyone needs a Vince in their lives.

My kids know this today, because I tell them so.

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Me, Vince, and his sister Tanya.

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I stumbled across an African philosophy several years ago that has become a part of my family’s everyday life.   We were just stepping foot onto the long and twisted Ethiopian adoption road, and while the rest of the world was embracing the more lyrical African philosophy Hakuna Matata, I was teaching my kids to embrace Ubuntu.

Ubuntu.

It means I am not ME without WE and is in reference to a wonderful quality certain people have in life in their actions toward their fellow human beings.  If you walk with ubuntu you are embracing the essence of what it is to be human.  I so loved the word and its meaning that I created a wall decal in 12″ font that adorns our entryway so every person who walks into our family home understands who we are through our family’s adopted philosophy. We are who we are because of the people who walk through our door.

There are two parts to the ubuntu concept.  The first is that a child is born friendly, hospitable, generous, gentle, caring, and compassionate.  As a parent WE should encourage our child to use these strengths on behalf of others.  To lift up the weak.  To reach out to the poor. To tend to the ill.  WE should teach our child to never take advantage of anyone and to apply the Golden Rule daily.  If they walk this walk the second part of ubuntu comes naturally.  The child shares their worth with the world and humanity is celebrated.

Those with ubuntu are welcoming.  They are approachable.  Those with ubuntu are kind.  Most importantly, those with ubuntu are not threatened by the goodness of others because they see the bigger picture, the greater whole of collective kindness.

ME and WE.  As human beings we need each other. We would cease to exist as a civilization if this were not true.   The person with ubuntu accepts with humility that they would not be the person they are without those who surround them.

They also recognize and accept that those who seek to cause harm to others through words or actions are victims of an out of control WE.  On a world-wide scale that would be political ideology, economic systems, or political strife.  On a playground scale it is a child with overaggressive parents who models their bully behavior. Or a child whose life was rocked because of an economic downturn that has made day-to-day living a struggle. Or a child in a peer group clique who fears individuality and is assigned to be part of a caste system among the play ground bark chips. Or a child lost in an orphanage system because of circumstances his WE could not control.  Sometimes in anger or despair it is easy to forget those who are aggressive are a result of the negative WE that surrounds them. Good or bad, they are who they are because of the WE in their lives.

Ubuntu: I am not ME without WE.

Every child deserves positive Ubuntu in their lives.  They must be surrounded by adults who can advocate for them, lift them up when they have fallen, hold their hand to guide them, and wrap their arms around them to love them. To give them a voice. To give them dignity.  All of this is crucial for a vulnerable child or quite simply, their spirit will cease to exist.

There is a bill that has been presented to both the United States House and Senate that aligns with the spirit of a positive Ubuntu.

Children in Families First (CHIFF) is about taking the theory of American foreign policy in regards to the welfare of children globally which emphasizes preserving or creating safe, permanent families for children through family preservation, family reunification, and family creation from domestic, kinship, or intercountry adoption, and making that theory a reality.

CHIFF legislation calls for the redirection of a small portion of the $2 billion the United States currently spends on children living abroad toward ensuring that all children grow up in a family. It also calls for programs funded with US tax dollars to focus on reducing the number of children living without families (on the streets, in orphanages, in refugee camps etc.) and increasing the ability of other governments to better protect their own children.

When a child comes into care the process has historically been to place the child in an orphanage or care facility and, as the months into years pass, take a lineal approach to finding a permanent solution for the child.  Instead of that lineal chain of events that could take years while the child sits and waits in an orphanage CHIFF is seeking to take that lineal chain apart by taking those links and placing them side by side, making them concurrent with the other links so time away from family, whether it be the family of origin or through adoption is significantly shorter for the vulnerable child.

CHIFF is not all about adoption agencies and orphanages.  It’s not about placing 150 million orphans in American homes. It is about wrapping our minds around the concept that on a global scale life in a family is truly the best option, that every child’s WE is important.  It is about providing resources for a family in crisis so the child can remain in their family of birth.  It is about the efforts to reunite a child with his family of origin.  And finally, if all other options fall short it is about creating families through adoption both domestically and internationally.

CHIFF is about being the WE to the ME of the child without a voice.

It is positive Ubuntu.

If you want to read more about CHIFF or become involved with this legislation you can go to their website  http://childreninfamiliesfirst.org/ or ‘like’ CHIFF on Facebook.

photo        I’ve been asked a time or two or twenty, “Four boys…HOW?”
        Well, a little inside info, just between you and me.  One word.  Tim.
        My brother Tim is a free spirit, always has been always will be.  We’ve survived his early Joey Romone days, his  creepy Sid Vicious days, and his Haight Ashbury meets Metallica days.   It was during his days in San Francisco, where he financed his starving musician career by being a bike messenger and a high rise window washer, that he got a tattoo that will go down in Murphy lore as the best argument against permanently altering the pasty white  skin God gave you.
       Tim was a heavy metal bass player.  They would play late into the night and usually drink through their sets.  After one gig they headed out to the store to get some more beer and came across a sign in the frozen food aisle, March is Frozen Food Month.  The words formed a circle around a penguin.  For some reason it really caught Tim’s inebriated eye so when they got back to his place he asked one of his band members to tattoo that exact sign on his knee cap.  The band member, being equally drunk agreed and went ahead to make a home made tattoo on Tim’s knee cap of the March is Frozen Food Month sign, complete with the  penguin.  Funny thing is that being drunk the band mate misspelled the word Month.  So Tim has, forever and a day, tattooed on his knee cap March is Frozen Food Mounth.
        Tim is THAT cool uncle. Today, he travels the world with Cirque du Soleil.   And he wears shorts wherever he goes so the world can see his knees…and his tattoo.    I have another brother too. He is the yin to Tim’s Yang.   His name is Dan and he’s THAT super nice genius uncle…but he doesn’t have a tattoo.
         So, I had Mr. Peabody as one brother and Motorhead as the other.  This is why having four sons from four different countries doesn’t challenge me in the least bit…because you can’t get much more diverse than what I had growing up.
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A cousin campout

My husband Jeff is awesome with the kids and I have to admit,  usually when I’m not there to hyper manage their life they have come away every time with all their limbs attached.  Actually, I think they all have a collective pact amongst themselves, “What happens with Dad, stays with Dad.” In the end, I usually find out anyway, even though a year or five may pass.

Case in point:  Two weeks ago Jeff took our two eleven-year-olds and their eight year old cousin on a three day camp out deep into the remote parts of the Umatilla Forest in Eastern, Oregon.  Last year a flash flood washed them out in June (no hiding THAT natural disaster from mom)  so they decided to wait and go a month later this summer.  They made their way over to the northern corner of the state and for 24 hours I didn’t hear anything.  No news is good news. Right?  But then, in the middle of a lovely lunch with my mom and cousin my cell phone rang. Jeff was reporting in.

I excused myself to answer the phone and on the other end Jeff asked, “Are some types of garter snakes poisonous?”

“WHAT?”

“I mean, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a rattlesnake, but…”

“RATTLESNAKE!?”

“Sam got bit by a snake but the boys can’t say for sure what type.  Now Sam has this strange waffle patterned red rash all over his back.”

“They didn’t notice whether or not it had rattles on its tail?”

“It’s Noah, Sam, and Tre.  They don’t pay attention to details,” Jeff answered.

“But it was a snake!”

After a few seconds of back and forth…okay…hold on…it was my one-sided  conversation…I told him to get the hell to the nearest urgent care.

For the next several hours I anxiously waited for a phone call from the east side of the state.  Finally, after saying good-bye to my cousin Mary Ann, dropping my mom off at her place, and coming home to a deliciously quiet house I got a phone call from Jeff at Urgent Care.

Jeff’s calm voice soothed my worried mom soul. “Sam’s fine. The boys are all sitting around a computer right now trying to identify the snake that bit him.  Sam says it was yellow, Noah said it was orange, and Tre said it was brown.”

“Or course,” I replied.  (These are the same boys who when I ask if they could grab a can of corn from the pantry they’ll walk in to it and stand at attention like they are guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and with blank stares look right at the corn and then return to me a minute later and tell me they can’t find it.)  Then I added, “Kind of a wide spectrum of colors for a snake that was only 12 inches away from their eyeballs.”

“Yeah…anyway,” Jeff quickly responded, because he’s just as guilty as his sons of this pantry myopia and he knows it.  He quickly changed the subject, “Anyway…the staff here has never seen anything like this waffle patterned rash he has across his back. They thought since its so hot here it could be heat rash.  They’ve given him Benedryl but it isn’t going away. We’re going back to the camp and I’ll keep an eye on it.”

What could I do but say, “Sounds good.”

Move along to the following morning.  While communing with the song birds on our back patio while sipping my Tazo green tea and defining peacefulness in my soul I got another phone call from Jeff. He wanted me to know Sam was fine.   He went on to say they were just cleaning up from breakfast but then in the middle of his sentence he yelled, “I don’t believe it!”

Once again my heart was on its way to skipping a beat but I think my eyes rolled first, “WHAT? WHAT NOW?”

“The rash!  I just figured out how he got it.”

“HOW?”

“Sam’s standing next to the checked table cloth without his shirt on and his rash matches the waffle pattern of the table cloth!”

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Note the table cloth

Yep, that strange rash that urgent care in Pendleton had never seen before, with perfect “waffle” pattern squares, well it was a gingham pattern that in the heat of the dry eastern Oregon weather ran onto Sam’s skin when he leaned against it  with his shirt off yesterday during lunch. (I’m guessing there wasn’t a woman working in urgent care that afternoon.  She’d recognize gingham right away.)

No rattlesnake. No rash.

This about tops the time Jeff thought Zak was bleeding internally because he was throwing up bright red but instead Zak had eaten over 100 Red Vines on Jeff’s watch.

Or the time when Sam thought he was dying because his poop and the toilet water was “bloody” after a day of fishing with the men of the family. After ‘fessing up to eating an unlimited amount of red licorice, Cheetos, orange soda, and Cheez Whiz on Cheez-Its  I was able to calmed Sam’s worries after I went into the pantry and grabbed a handful of leftover fire hot Cheetos and threw them into the toilet.  They floated next to his real poop and within a few seconds you couldn’t distinguish between the two bobbing masses. Gotta love Orange Dye #9.

And so goes my life.  A life I share with an amazing man who knows what it takes to be a build-memories-with-my-kids DAD, because OF the snake bite, waffle patterned rash, red licorice vomit, and Cheez-it orange poop moments.

Five Years Later

October 31, 2008

Five years ago I wrote an essay that, with the encouragement of a fellow adoptive mom, I submitted to Adoptive Families magazine.  It was picked up immediately and because of its timely subject, within a month of writing it I was seeing my name in the byline of a nationally published magazine writing about a topic that I was  so very very new at, being the mom of an Ethiopian child.

In the essay I wrote about my reaction to his first outward case of being treated different because of his origin.  I hadn’t read it in a couple of years so I pulled it out this morning and re-read it, just to revisit my emotions.  My reaction to the situation.

After I read it I whispered under my breath, “Hell yeah, I’d react the exact same way…and then some.”

Why?  Because back then I liked my son.  The so called Mama Bear complex had already kicked in. With any relationship it takes time to fall in love and after only three months in our family he and I were still just getting to know each other. I knew his background.  He was the underdog and he needed a champion that day.  And I was it.  

Today? Five years later?  I love my son.  And together we have faced similar moments  like that moment I wrote about five years ago.  We have talked. We have reacted.  We have cried. Through it all we have come to love each other.  

With adversity comes strengthand love. 

What is different today that five years ago?  My son knows racism now.  He knows the “N” word.  He knows simple mindedness.  He knows hate.  He also knows Martin Luther King’s message and Nelson Mandela’s message and he is drafting his own message as he walks through life.  And I pray for him everyday.

I posed a question in my essay,  “Did Martin Luther King’s dream come true?” and in the final words of the essay answered my own questions that I firmly believe more than ever today, “On the streets that my African son has to walk every day of his life, the answer is yet to be seen.”

Dream Come True?

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Purpose

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Looking back, I shake my head on how much I didn’t get when we added a six year old boy from Ethiopia to our family five years ago.  On the outside, we foolishly convinced ourselves that everything was fine but on the inside, our son was broken. A year or so into his new life in our family, debilitating survivors guilt and anger reared its ugly head and flowed into our everyday world.  On some days it paralyzed the entire family.  By the book we did everything we possibly could for him.  Grief counseling.  Family counseling.  Love.  But this tiny eight-year-old Ethiopian was breaking apart and he was taking us down with him.

It was during this time I sat at my counter, beside myself and drained,  after yet another rough morning and my heart ached.  Yes, it  literally ached for his torment and grief. And then it dawned on me, an epiphany of extreme proportions, that my son needed a purpose and an identity beyond the word adopted.  We needed to strip away the title and we needed to find him. And then, out of the blue, like Emerson’s Law of Spiritual Gravitation (people destined to meet will do so apparently by chance, at precisely the right moment) a seventeen year old Ethiopian adoptee walked into Noah’s life and changed everything.

Solomon had just returned from Ethiopia.  His adopted family decided he and his biological sisters needed a trip to their Motherland.  They hired a car in Addis and as the story goes just started driving around the countryside in Ethiopia, hoping to maybe stumble on Solomon’s birth village.  Seriously.  They drove around an area they knew they were from.  One day the siblings saw a tree up on a hill and told their parents to stop the car.  They raced out of the car and ran up the hill and then disappeared behind it.  The family followed, only to stop in their tracks at the site of their three adopted children being welcomed back into their birth village.  They spent several days in the village and during that time Solomon became aware of the daily struggles to obtain safe drinking water.

Upon leaving for home, Solomon pledged to his village they would have safe water.  He came back to the States and for his Senior Year Project created a fund raising campaign that would build a well in his birth village.  Noah met him during this  fund raising campaign and became fascinated that this Ethiopian adoptee could give back to the people he left behind.  Solomon was exactly the same age Noah was (6 years old) when he was adopted, so ten years had passed.

Noah is and always has been a busy guy with his hands.  To keep his hands happy during a long drive to a family reunion, I set him up with a picture frame size weaving loom. (He had learned how to weave through an Artist in Residence program in 3rd grade) Noah decided on this trip he was going to do some weaving and sell the weavings for $5 to family members and then give Solomon the money for his well project.  His first round of weavings made $45.

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The first few days of 4th grade, Noah shared his story of Solomon with his teacher.  His teacher, who has a heart of gold and a very social justice lean to her way of teaching said, “Everyone in this class knows how to weave, so lets have the whole class do this and we’ll sell them.”  The local holiday bazaar donated a space during the holidays for Noah and his friends and at the end of the day they had made close to $500.  By that time Solomon’s campaign had already topped out and he was actually in his birth village for three months helping dig and place the well for his birth village.

I did some research and found that charity:water, a non-profit organization out of New York City accepted donations and 100% went directly to project in the field.  We set up an account, Weaving for Water, with them.  Noah kept weaving.  His friends kept weaving.  His classmates kept weaving.  As of last May, they had sold over $3200 worth of weavings that have helped fund projects in Uganda, The Ivory Coast, Nepal, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia.  In fact, just a few days ago we received pictures from a well project in the village of Mihtsagshim, Ethiopia surrounded by happy villagers that Noah and his friends helped fund.

Last March charity:water designated Noah as a World Wide Water Ambassador for his work to spread the word in his community for the need for clean safe drinking water around the world.  He educated hundreds of kids in one day and he educated a community over the span of two years with his project.

World Water Day 2013

World Water Day 2013

He was also honored last May with the Clark County Youth Achievement Award for his work to educate others about the need for clean water.

For me, his mom, well, I tear up because after weeks and months of my heart aching for his grief it is so very clear he has found  his purpose.  I have said time and time again he is on loan to us from Ethiopia.  He’s going to go back.  He’s going to dig wells, find medication, and save lives because that is his purpose.  He has told me as much.  Finding a purpose.  Sharing his heart. His compassion.  That is the way he has conquered the demons that tried so very hard to conquer him.

Charity:water saves lives.  This is proven.  I don’t think, however, charity:water knows the impact they have had on Noah.  I don’t think they truly understand that they saved my little boy’s life as well.

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Mihtsabshim Community Well, Tigray Ethiopia

Serendipity

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Celtic Cross of Journeys and Meetings-The Wild Goose Studio County Cork, Ireland

It all began less that two weeks ago.  Really, it was a Friday like all the other Fridays in the fall.  Prying my eleven year olds out of bed. Hugging Nick and whispering a silent prayer for his safety in his final football game of the season. Answering a text from Hannah from the night before.  Attempting to get more than a grunt out of Zak as he shuffled through the kitchen in a zombie like haze.  It was just a typical Friday morning, that is,  until I looked at a message on my computer.

“Dear Julianne, I have just received results (from 23andme) and you appear to be a 2nd  or 3rd cousin.  I’d love to connect via email if you would like to do so.  I was adopted at birth, 45 years ago.”

Hold the phone.  Hold the hugs. Hold the wake up call up the stairs. Hold the zombie shuffle.  I read and re-read the message just to confirm that I understood what I thought I had read.  And then my heart swelled, because two words pulsated forward out of the many. Cousin and adopted.

This is my story.  My words.  As an adoptive mom. As cousin of an adoptee who had been lost from my family but is now found.

As fast as I could shoo my sweet cloud of young men out the door I immediately sat down to respond to the message. Back and forth we wrote, on this now not so typical Friday morning and as the morning progressed it was very very clear there was something amazing developing, something that confirmed that even though adoption separated us, our nature was so very much the same.   We both have five children. We both have children adopted from China and Korea. We both have adopted children with special needs.  We both are strong advocates for finding a family for every child. We both write…to raise awareness.  However,  I will gladly step aside here and give her a very humble, wide sweeping bow for ALL and EVERYTHING she has done throughout the years for the children. She is a hero to thousands upon thousands of families.

Later that morning she sent a picture of herself at her high school graduation.  And when I opened that file and the picture appeared…I saw an 18 year old me.  I. Saw. Me.  The familiarity of our hearts had been established that morning but the familiarity of her face? It chilled me.  We weren’t a carbon copy of each other by any means, cousins aren’t.  I had blue eyes.  She had brown. But there was something about her…something so very Irish.

I called my mom and together we started pecking through the branches of the family tree.  We came up with hunches and possibilities.  My brother became involved and within a weeks time we had information I passed on to her of potential very Irish birth family links.  How could I not?  I am the mom of three adoptees who might someday want to fill in some very big blanks if possible and I would pray no one would purposely get in the way of their chance to tell their story.

And as it turns out, my cousin and I are more closely related than we thought.

What my cousin does with the information I gave her is her story to tell. The next chapter of her life should she choose to write it.  For me, to be able to gift her with even just her heritage and the name of the  isolated cross roads in Ireland where our people lived before they sailed to Ellis Island less than 100 years ago?  That is a gift that is priceless.

It is the best gift I have ever given anyone.

When I was in Ireland a few years ago I visited an art studio, The Wild Goose Studio.  It was filled with beautiful blends of modern and ancient Celtic art.  Out of all the pieces of art my eyes connected with one, the Celtic Cross of Journey and Meetings.  I bought it and brought it home to display by my dining room table because it was symbolic of my family, created through adoption.  Through its simplicity of Celtic knots and the Tree of Life it represents Emerson’s Law of Spiritual Gravitation, that people destined to meet will do so by chance, at precisely the right moment in time.

For my cousin and I that right moment in time happened.  On that not quite so typical Friday morning less than two weeks ago.

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