Monday, May 18, 2009


She came home last Wednesday, dumped her backpack in the hall, hugged me, and headed to the kitchen for a late afternoon snack and the day’s debriefing.

I tried out for Bump today, Mom.

It’s mid-May. There are four weeks left in the school year. She’s been shooting baskets every day, every recess, alone in a corner of the playground since early last fall.

What do you mean... tried out? I asked.

At the start of the school year, she and her classmates played nothing but Four-Square. Then, for a change, they played Nine-Square. They played before school, during school (at recess,) and after school. My daughter loved it. Then, for some reason, or perhaps no reason, somewhere around mid-October, the kids all switched to a game called Bump. They lined up on the basketball court, and took turns shooting baskets. If you took a turn and missed, you could still use your ball to try and bump the next person’s shot away.

She withdrew. They’re mean to each other, she said. The kids cheer if you get ‘bumped’ out.

More and more it seemed, when I asked about her day, about what happened at recess, she chose to go it alone. She wasn’t joining in the other kids’ games, and she sat alone at lunch. This wasn’t like her. She loved to be in the thick of things, to play with the other kids.

There was a lot going on last fall. I’d been warned third grade wasn’t always smooth sailing, that the waters could be choppy.

By mid-October, this was abundantly clear. My daughter was coming home from school, three out of five days each week, in tears. What was going on?

What wasn’t going on?

One boy in her class prodded and teased her relentlessly. Like an awkward, St. Bernard puppy, all elbows and feet, he was accustomed to rougher play, to an older brother’s jostling and teasing. He was sweet, but he was also obtuse. He couldn’t read my daughter’s upset, her non-verbal cues.

One day in the lunchroom another girl from her class attempted a clumsy power play. She whispered to a cluster of girls, suggesting my daughter was mean. The good news? The girls looked at Presumptive-Ring-Leader-Girl as if she were crazy. The bad news? My daughter, sitting one table away, alone with her lunch, heard the exchange.

Another girl, needy and anxious, not knowing a better way, fought for friends, position, or playground advantage using pressure, coercion, exclusion, and threats. It’s not fair! she would cry. You’re mean! I’m telling! The girl wouldn’t take no for an answer. Not knowing how to respond, not wanting to create further conflict, my daughter gave in. This only made her more of a target. She ended up odd girl out, squeezed out of play, even friendships.

At school, she retreated to the safety of the Sad Froggy Desk, in tears. At home, she retreated to the couch, in tears. I sat with her, listened, asked questions. I tried humor. We brainstormed solutions and role played. Slowly she learned to distinguish between accusation and reality, between forceful threat and meaningless bluster. Between coercion and friendship.

Be yourself, I said. Follow the Golden Rule. Remember, what goes around, comes around.

We cycled through the same conversations over and over. For weeks this consumed the bulk of our evenings.

She had good days and bad but finally, slowly, she began to bounce back. The boy who’d been jostling and teasing stepped into her crosshairs one time too many. She looked him in the eye just as we’d practiced. She called out his name then, staring him down, said firmly and clearly, I don’t like that. Please stop it.” The boy froze in his tracks and nearly fell over. But the teasing and jostling stopped.

Soon too, she was on good enough terms with Presumptive-Ring-Leader-Girl. And she stood her ground with Needy-and-Anxious. I'm not mean, she countered. Maybe you’re the one who's mean. If you don’t like what we’re doing, sit some place else.

The tears and upset diminished. Still, she spent much of her free time, at lunch, on the playground, alone. She sat apart and played apart. Then, this spring, a new wave of sadness on a different front: the loss of her birth mother, her country and culture. I wondered if the year was all just too much, if it was taking a toll on her self-esteem. But I knew too much outward worry would make matters worse. So I watched and I waited.

I stopped by school one day to drop off some papers and decided to take a look for myself. I snuck a peek out at the playground. There were kids everywhere, chasing, racing, swinging, spinning, batting, kicking, climbing, yelling, shooting, shoving, and shouting. I spotted my daughter off on a corner of the black top, apart from her classmates -- an island of calm.

She stood there, holding a basketball.

The ball looked big, almost a quarter the size of her body. Her little girl hands fanned out, clutching the great orange orb. She looked up at the tall, far away hoop, pulled the ball in close to her chest, then hurled the beast up and out, throwing the full weight of her body behind it, stumbling forward. Sometimes the beast found the basket: Whoosh! More often than not, it didn't. It hit the rim with a dull, resounding thud: Whh-onggg! The backboard shuddered and the ball ricocheted away. She scrambled to rein in the runaway and then she returned. She dribbled. Got back in position. Collected her thoughts, took aim, and hurled the beast again.

She was neither sad nor upset. Maybe this wasn’t a bad thing...

A little while later when she mentioned sitting alone in the lunchroom, I asked why she chose not to sit with her friends. If there might be a reason. The answer? The fewer the distractions, the sooner she finished, the greater the chance she’d be out on the court, under a hoop, with a ball.

A few weeks later, she asked if I could find a basketball camp for one of her summer activities.

Did an escape turn into a passion? Or was the passion a healthy escape..?

Did it matter?
The sun shot low beams of light through the panes of our back kitchen door. My daughter sat at the counter, licking her frozen yoghurt. Trying out at Bump, she explained, meant she’d stepped into line along with her classmates to take a turn at the basket.

What prompted this? I asked.

Turns out, her friends, Emmy, Sarah, and Hannah, had pleaded with her for days, urging her to join them. Come on! Please! Just come! Get in line! So, she stepped into line and when her turn came, she looked up at the hoop, took aim and, thrusting her arms out, propelled the ball up into the air.

And guess what, Mom?


I got it in! I shot a basket! She sprang out of her seat, pumped her fists high in the air, made a "V" with her fingers, and strutted about the kitchen. Kicking her knees up high, she shouted, Oh yeah… oh yeah.. oh yeah… I ROCK!

You sure do, kiddo.

But you know what?


I tried Bump at the beginning of the year and -- she rolled her eyes -- I really sucked!

She cracked up.

That evening, she shared a note she'd received from one of the girls in her class.

Dear _________,
You’re a great friend. You rock! Let’s have a play date.

I looked at my daughter and marveled at her resilience, at how far she'd come. I told her as much, and she beamed.

Thirty minutes later, washed and scrubbed, the two of us settled into my high, four poster bed. Drawing the large comforter up about our chins we sank deeper into the bed. Max burrowed in between the stretch of our bodies. Black patches of curly fur appeared between the excess folds of white cotton cover. His deep measured breathing soon filled the room.

I opened Phantom Tollbooth and picked up where we'd left off. Milo, Tock, and the Humbug had leapt to Conclusions -- but now they made their way back. We lost ourselves in the rhythm of story, the puns, and word play. We peered up at each other with knowing smiles, a shared understanding. The minutes ticked by and we nestled still deeper into the bed. The comforter was so full, so thick, so high, we soon caught only glimpses of each other between the great white, billowy waves. We grew sleepy, drifting along on beautiful, calm, balmy waters. Just us three, on our great white raft.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Snippets & Snatches

I’ve been so overwhelmed these past few months by the big issues, by the recent, rock-your-world kinds of moments, I’ve neglected to share a few of the little everyday moments, the joyful snippets and snatches that pass in an instant, yet stay in your heart forever.

It's been a consuming week. My computer crashed. My child crashed. The computer never rebooted. My child, warmed and wilted, slowly responded to treatment.

She collapsed Friday evening with a temperature of 102. I called the doctor’s office and we went in first thing Saturday to check for Swine. No Swine. Thank goodness. By Saturday mid-day she was better, though still not herself. Saturday night her fever spiked to 103. Her body felt warm like a furnace. I gave her Tylenol then swabbed her down with a cool, wet washcloth. She cried. Then she slept.

She woke early Sunday, still fighting a low-grade fever. But while I slept, she tip-toed downstairs, poured out a glass of juice, and retrieved the morning paper. At 7am, I heard my door and opened my eyes to see my 9 year old, pajama girl pad into the room, holding glass of juice and paper aloft.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Charm & Challenge of China

Two and half years before I adopted my daughter, when my girl was nothing more than the germ of an idea planted, lying in wait, at the back of my mind, I decided to go to China.

I figured if adoption was feasible, if motherhood was pending, I should try and sate my appetite for adventure while I had the chance. I’d always wanted to see the Great Wall and thought, if I was going to adopt from China, it made sense to visit – to see if I felt an affinity for the people and the culture.

REI offered a bike tour through southeast China’s most picturesque country, through Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. The literature waxed poetic, painting peaceful, pastoral scenes of picturesque hamlets, villages, farms, crystal clear running rivers, and towering karst limestone mountains, scenes that inspired China’s great painters and poets. I signed on and convinced my friend Carol to join me. We embarked on rigorous training rides, imagining, anticipating the bucolic charms of China.

The reality proved slightly different.

By November ‘98, I found myself biking along a dirt path bisecting a long and narrow dike. It was our group’s first day out riding on open roads -- but all I could think was how relieved I was to leave the smog, the tension of the cities and towns, the odd looks from the locals, the stern lectures from our guide, and the ominously empty 7 Star Crag Park with its haunting lakes and lush gardens. To say the trip had strange, uneasy beginnings, that I had misgivings, was an understatement.

Our small group of six had flown into Hong Kong, briefly explored the smog-infested city, and stayed the night. Early the next morning, we boarded a commuter ferry and rode 4 hours up the Pearl River, deeper into the smog, squinting through thick layers of gray and brown haze. Factories and cranes, -- heavy industry -- hugged the shoreline.

I’m in China, I thought. So why am I thinking …Newark, New Jersey?

I exchanged nervous glances with Carol but said nothing. We landed in the PRC, in the town of Zhaoqing, and met our guide and driver. As we bumped and bounced along in our shock-absorbent-free tour van, our guide, Ji-wei, turned to welcome us. He had a solid muscular build, short cropped hair, a wholesome face, and a broad, handsome smile. Using close-to-impeccable English, he gave us an introduction, a lecture really, on modern China’s history.

China, or Chinese, he explained, was really Western nomenclature. For thousands of years, the people have called their country Zhōngguó, meaning central or middle kingdom, the world that lies between the celestial heavens and the underworld. (Hint, hint, he seemed to be saying, the center of civilization.) Mao Tse Tung the father of modern China, defeated the corrupt, debauched General Chiang Kai-Shek after a long and difficult civil war. (The notion of a Communist Revolution, again, was a western construct.) The Russians were not involved but America had meddled intrusively, backing the evil General. Mao understood and supported the people, lifting China up and out of oppressive imperial rule and medieval privilege. Deng Xiao Ping brought economic reforms and further transformed the country.

Lecture complete, the group stopped for lunch at an eerily empty resort, a place bounded by karst limestone formations and filled with pools, lakes, quiet paths, pavilions, pagodas, and lush green gardens. With little explanation (and a touch of disdain?) our guide noted the man who’d designed and built the elegant 7 Star Crag Park had paid for it with his life -- in the Cultural Revolution.

What to say? The group grew silent. Had I made a mistake? What were we doing here? I avoided Carol’s glances.

We climbed back into the van and headed deeper into the country. The van stopped again and Carol and I, and the others, tested and fitted our bikes. We set out, peddling, climbing a path up onto the dike, looking for a touch of something less …official, less ominous, more authentic.

A school girl rode her bike up beside us. She asked timidly, in broken English, if we were American. We nodded, smiled, and showed her our map. She offered to show us the way and asked if she might ride with us and practice her English. We nodded, Sure. We rode. We chatted. We began to relax.

Over the next 9 days, we biked 50-60 miles a day -- and encountered China, in all its rich, confusing complexity. We found a rapidly changing landscape, a country undergoing massive change, on a massive scale. We found a people, a culture, as charming as it was forbidding.

We biked through the country and saw paddies, fields, and farmland that glowed green and gold in the sun, even as coal factories hovered on the horizon, belching black plumes of unscrubbed smoke. We watched fishermen setting their nets, families working their fields, threshing rice, raking grain, burning the empty stalks. Those who weren’t fishing or working the land, dug ditches, lay roads, logged forests, erected new concrete and brick structures.

Everyone worked. Well, almost everyone. We passed clusters of men in small towns, lingering in pool halls, smoking, loitering in the square, leering as we passed. We noticed more often than not, that women and children worked in the fields. They carried astonishing loads, on heads, shoulders, bikes, and backs, lugging firewood, brush, persimmons, potatoes, hay, and big buckets of water. They smiled as we passed even when their bodies bowed under the loads they bore.
Some of the people were poor. Dirt poor. We passed a few places where hygiene seemed non-existent. The bathrooms were the worst I’d ever seen, putrid, open air fly-fests.

Ji-wei reminded us of China’s difficult history, of floods, famine, and quakes, of the terrible loss of life. The forces of nature prevailed. In the end, human life was fragile -- and cheap. It’s why, he explained, nature looms large in classical Chinese painting. Humans are small, insignificant figures against a larger landscape.

I looked for ways to encourage our typically tight lipped guide to share more of his life and culture. When I learned he had an 8 year old daughter, I asked for the stories he told her. He shared two examples:

The first was the story of a boy who rescued a sick, injured wolf he saw scrambling to escape a horde of hungry villagers. The boy took the wolf home and nursed him back to health. Later, when suspicious villagers confronted the boy, he hid the wolf in the folds of his coat. But the wolf chewed through the boy’s stomach -- and the boy dropped to his death.

Ji-wei stopped.

That’s it? I asked, somewhat shocked. (Where was the happy ending? )

Uh huh, Ji-wei nodded.

And.. the moral of the story is..?

If you show your enemy weakness, Ji-wei replied, he will destroy you.


Ji-wei launched right into his second example, a tale of a famous general. His troops had fought a long, hard campaign but ended up outnumbered, cornered with their backs to the sea. Several ships lay at anchor nearby but, as the enemy approached, the general burned every last ship, the men’s sole means of escape. The soldiers were forced to stand and fight.

So... they beat the odds and won? I asked hopefully.

No. Ji-wei replied. They were slaughtered.

I paused, eyebrows elevated. And, the lesson is…?
True patriotism is when you stand and fight to the finish -- even in the face of terrible odds.

It was the last story I asked for.

We continued along open roads, biking from town to town. We passed men peddling to market on rattling, rusted bikes that creaked and groaned with the weight of 200 pound pigs, or huge 100 pound sacks of grain slung over the back of the bike. We passed women hacking raw boulders out of the hillside. They wore straw hats, thin blouses, cotton trousers, and flip flops and worked with young children seated beside them.

It dawned on us what a sight we were -- in our space-age helmets, special shoes, spandex shorts, and padded seat pants. We rode brightly colored bikes with aluminum frames and fat tires, using fancy sprockets and shifters. We carried maps and a camera.

And yet, while a few people hid, or averted their gaze, others stopped and stared at us openly. More more often than not, the stares turned to grins, then smiles. They welcomed us with great curiosity and warmth. Mothers held up their children and waved. School boys rushed to greet us while the girls, more bashful, held back, wide-eyed, soaking in the sight of us.

One small girl with dirty hands, dirty face, dirty clothes, ran to bring me a present: a single, soot-covered taro. I was loathe to take it (was it dinner?) but I couldn’t refuse her.

We passed through local “hamlets” -- towns of 200,000, small cities of 500,000, and mid-sized cities of millions. We dodged pedestrians, pushcarts, pedal carts, pigs, bicyclists, buffalo, cars, cats, trucks, ruts, boulders, ditches, and dogs. The sheer number of people was staggering.

At the end of the trip, I traveled north to see Xian and Beijing. Streets and shops with neon signs promoted modern life’s amenities, from designer clothes to electronic gadgets. Young women wore make-up and tight trendy clothing. Men sported suits and cell phones. Still, signs of poverty and ill-health remained. I don’t recall seeing anyone with a weight problem and the smiles of many, especially the elderly, revealed crowded teeth, crooked teeth, missing teeth, even blackened yellow teeth. Beggars, some deranged, some deformed, wandered at will.

I saw the Terra Cotta warriors, the Great Wall, the Imperial and Summer Palaces and marveled. But I cringed at the sound of long throaty wind-ups, at men flinging their phlegm. I watched in amazement as parents held out their babies to pee through split pants at the edge of a public sidewalk. And I winced at the treatment of rabbits, chicks, cats, and dogs in various public markets.

We arrived back in the States and it felt good to be home. I looked through my pictures and saw China had so many different textures, so many different faces: people like Ji-wei, the official face of China. But also everyday people, the men, women and children we passed in farms, on fields, by the rivers and roads -- the unofficial China, the people trying to eek out a life, all the while smiling and welcoming us with a warmth that was hard to forget.

My favorite photo remains the one I took of the school girl we met that first day on the dike. She looks back over her shoulder and holds up her finger, as if she is pointing the way, beckoning me on toward my future.

Now my daughter and I join other FCC families. We celebrate Chinese New Year, Egg hunts, Moon festivals, and Heritage Camps. My daughter loves learning the language. She loves the martial arts, the dances, the costumes, the chance to perform. I watch her partake with pride. But part of me wonders if she’s learning Chinese culture or, if really she’s learning what is, for the most part, white, adoptive America’s take on Chinese culture. And I wonder someday if, when she travels to China, she will discover a deep rooted connection but also, a dissonance -- confronting that part of herself that is, like her mother, deeply American.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Note For First Time Visitors

Welcome. Thanks for stopping by. My name is Lisa. I’m a single mom with a 12 year old Portuguese Water Dog and a 9 year old daughter I adopted from China. I started this blog this past March -- and had no idea the places it would take me, or the response it would elicit. For me it’s a chance to share everyday stories. I write about parenting, adoption, life, love, and loss. I write about the big moments, the ones that touched me or shifted my world. I write about the little moments, the ones that caught my breath or gave me pause.

The more I write, the more some of my favorite (or hardest won) posts get buried. To give you a sense of us and our journey, here are a few highlights and pointers:

Why a "Pack?"
A brief introduction to who we are as a family and how I came up with the name, Pack of Three.

Shifting Gears
How I left behind life as a professionally manic work-a-holic, and started the pack, beginning with an 8 week old Portuguese Water dog.

Puppy Tales
A funny, zany look back on my trial run as a new “mom,” trying to rein in an 8 week old Portuguese Water Dog pup. (If the Obamas had only known!)

An Adoption Paradox
As my 9 year old daughter struggles with her losses, I realize, to strengthen our bond, I must loosen my grip and make room for the mother and life she misses.

A Day in the Life of a Single Mom
Every mom has those days where, the harder you try to pull it together, the more things come undone – sometimes in the most relentlessly humbling, hilarious way.

How I Came to My Decision
After I did the research and mulled the idea over (and over,) how I finally came to my decision to adopt my daughter from China.

The heartstopping moment my beautiful, angst ridden daughter confesses a deep-seated fear: did I steal her from China?

Of Loss and Joy and Desiring
To show my daughter I've nothing to hide, we sit down and review her adoption papers – and confront the hardest truth of all.

Two Mothers
My daughter regains some of her old bounce. Life returns to normal but then, she shares a strange dream.

Car Pool
Carpool comments that have taken me by surprise: a few favorites.

Half a World Away
How girls, sadly, came to be available for adoption from China, in such numbers, and how that dynamic today has changed.

One Small Step After Another
Having just processed the hardest parts of her story, my daughter is asked to write an essay for school. The third grade has just studied tales of the Oregon Trail and the teacher suggests an essay: How My Family Came West. My daughter writes, How I Came East.

Thanks again for stopping by Pack of Three. I welcome email and comments.