500 pages

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a Ph.D. in English Literature/Creative Writing in 1994. Before I went to graduate school, I did not know what I wanted to be. I had written a little earlier in life, and had taken a fiction workshop while I was an undergraduate, but my sense of myself as a writer was hazy at best. Still, I had done some work and I applied to writing programs in the spring of 1988. I was accepted at Binghamton.

While I was in graduate school, I wrote stories, a novel that I shelved, some poetry, and essays. I also wrote a slew of academic papers. Mostly, I read furiously and widely, delving into a world of literature and philosophy that had not existed for me before I began this turn in my life. I still have many of the books that I read in those six years and they are either a bulwark or an anchor. Now, they seem more like part of a wall that divided my life into the time when I did not write, the time I discovered writing, and the time I stopped writing.

That time ended in 2018 when I considered moving away from family and the jobs I held in Norfolk. I had been separated and divorced for four years. Calamity at one of my jobs resonated in my life. I was at sea. I needed to find a ground that was not defined by the needs and desires of other people. I needed, frankly, to be selfish and directed. I do not believe that it is a surprise (to me at least) that my colleagues sent me packing with the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck when I left in August of 2018. Message received.

Because I did give a fuck — too many fucks — not just in my professional work and personal life, but in my writing. Unlike some of my one time classmates, I felt called to writing not so much because I had a need to express myself, but almost in spite of any need to exclaim, “Here I am!” I was obsessed with getting at some ineffable and intractable truth that existed outside my narrow sense of self. I wrote with an evangelical zeal. Can I say that art motivated by such a keening has little easy air to breathe? It does not. My stories, even when they were fantastic, needed to tread more often on the ground.

When I started writing this blog in 2014, I was in China to adopt my daughter. I started to write about simple human truths that were grounded in my simple human experiences. I hoped that my observations would have some resonance with others, but I wrote without too much of a concern for an audience. The work proceeded in fits and starts after that initial push. And then it flared into this—a daily practice of reflection and direction. That fire lit the flame of the novel I finished in August and has carried me into a second.

My writing projects since May of 2018 have produced over 500 pages of words. Some are good. Some are better. My nonfiction has been largely about my writing and writing in general. My fiction has just been a story about a Djinn, almost a retelling of an older—much older—story, with some of my preoccupations thrown in for good measure.

Writing (fiction and nonfiction) has felt revivifying. I have enjoyed the deeper reflection and playful invention. The writing has come more easily and far more consistently than anything else and at any time I have ever written. Ever. I have looked forward to the task and have left it—whether I write for an hour or the better part of a day—feeling replenished. More will—and does—come.

When I shared this insight—500 pages! More is coming!—with a friend, I did so with the proviso: “in spite of the past year.” She corrected me: “Because of it.” Perhaps so. Perhaps I spent the past year and a half knocking myself off my moorings just so that I could get this work done, just so that I could reclaim all that I had feared was lost.

I told another friend that I felt a kind of urgency to write. She worried that I was ill or distressed. Yes, I have been distressed. Old wounds have haunted me and focused my attention. I have allowed them the space to heal. And have used the writing to help me heal.

While the writing has helped me gird myself against that distress, it has also allowed me to wrap myself in joy. I feel that joy more profoundly now than when I was starting out some thirty years ago. The old uncertainties have fallen away. I do not ask, “Is it good enough? Will there be another? Do I have the right?” Instead, I take solace in a more durable method that suits my heart and mind. I go this way.

“How do you understand each other?”

I get this question several times a day. It’s true, we don’t speak (much) Chinese and Shi Hui does not speak (much, but more every day) English, nonetheless we seem to understand each other. Sure, that understanding comes in broad strokes sometimes, but we get the basics down fairly well.

All of which leads me to this reflection: maybe we get a little too hung up on the right words to say. I know what Twain said about the lightning and the lightning bug, and I teach the value of context and connotation. Still, I can’t help feeling we do a larger disservice to tone than is good for us. Getting the tone right almost seems as important–both in terms of conveying meaning and understanding meaning–as getting the words right.

When Shi Hui speaks I can gauge her feelings fairly well, and when I work with kids, I can hear that in them too. Maybe because with kids, and the way we treat kids, the heart matters as much as the head. Is it wrong of me to think that adults talk to the head a little too much, or think that they speak from the head, when really, it’s always both?

Yes, I know, it’s important to be able to express one’s desire precisely. The request, “I want a Fanta Orange Soda,” will get one a Fanta Orange Soda (full caveat: if such is available, if one hasn’t just chugged down two said sodas already, you get the drill). Right now, I can’t tell exactly what my daughter wants, but I know when she wants. I start with “my daughter wants something,” then move on to the context of the moment, ask some very basic questions, listen a little more, hunt and peck for meaning. It’s a slower process, and it’s a process we engage together. In the end some accord is reached, then we move on to the next thing.

And it’s not just about answering her desires–everything is slowly hashed out. There is no way for me to rush her, and no way for her to speed up my understanding. Fortunately we are (mostly) patient with each other. We are both learning to speak English.


When I told people that we were adopting an older child, some had a vague understanding that we were facing potentially exceptional challenges. This went beyond the somewhat more crude, “What’s wrong with her?” question I occasionally heard (Yes, I have the benefit of living in a fairly frank community). There are plenty of horror stories about the affects of prolonged institutionalization of kids, and while my wife and I did not discuss these stories (she likes to keep a positive shine on things until the fan is turned to high), we are aware of them.

When we entered the process of looking for an older child we gleaned the lists of waiting children looking for a girl whose dossier indicated at least strong hints of the child we brought home. We very consciously looked for a child whose background spoke to a certain amenability to blending with our family. That said, she did not get to pick us.

Nonetheless, the rule of thumb with various sensory, cognitive, and developmental delays is this: an institutionalized child will “lose” three months of “normal” process for every year he or she has been out of a primary caregiver relationship (read: family). This includes growth, speech, intellect, emotion, morality–all those things for which you can imagine a scale that says “my x-year old should be here.” Our daughter came home with us three weeks before her tenth birthday. Quick math: 30 months of “delays.” And no, there is no set schematic for exactly what those specific delays might be. Each child is different.

In the short run, we simply have someone in our house who is all at once between the ages of 7 and 10 and all the ages between 7 and 10. And, lest we forget, she is learning EVERYTHING in a brand new language. We are more fortunate than can be imagined because her attitude is so overwhelmingly upbeat.

In addition, a heavy dose of “re-parenting” (going back and parenting for all those years and stages during which she had no primary caregiver) is ahead. This means we will go back much further than 7. In some ways she has infant stuff that she never went through and we will do that too.

In the long run? Brain science shows that the organ is far more plastic for far longer than we believed even ten years ago. The delays are just that: delays. She will catch up and become, well, whoever she will be. We will not really know who she is going to be for years, but then, that is true of everyone, even us.

Three and a half feet of joy

We took the new daughter to the pool this weekend. It was immediately clear that she had not been in water deeper than her knees.

The pool in which she played with us at Guangzhou was a meter deep in the shallow end, so all she could do was sit on the side or allow us to carry her. The pool at the Mallory has steps leading to water that is two and a half feet deep.

And so on Sunday, the first wade into water that rose above her waist. There was a nervous look for a moment, and then back to the usual peel of giggles. This is her method as she approaches new things: a moment of nervousness (sometimes barely perceptible) and then “Look at me!” Swimming lessons are in the offing.

And then of course, the ocean. This was a more daunting prospect, and it will take her a while to overcome the force of waves. She is a wee thing (and already weighs more than she did three weeks ago). One wave surprised her straight on, and she ran back up the beach, only to turn and look with more than a fair amount of longing.

The Schedule of Life at Home

Those of you who know me know I lead a fairly busy life. I work 3 part time jobs, none of which is really part time. I have 7 day work weeks, and this makes me, by all accounts, fairly normal in the working world.

I enjoyed the time in China getting my daughter, in large part, because I was not working (or only working a very small amount), and I had scads of time to spend with my family. My only limits were sleep related during the initial bout of jet lag.

Now, at home, I am back of the world of work commitments. I went to work within 24 hours of arriving back at home. Jet lag would have to wait for days when I could afford a satchel full of half hour naps while my circadian clock got back on track.

I cannot say that my work schedule is fully appreciated by those with whom I live. Work often gets in the way of spontaneous outbursts of family activities, and if I beg off for prior (paid) commitments, I get more than a little of the hairy eyeball. I understand why, and I desperately wish for more time.

However, the paycheck helps the family world go around too. Our China expenses reached well beyond 30 thousand dollars, and that doesn’t even fully take into account the money we had spent on the previous plan that fell through when the adoption agreement between Vietnam and the United States four years ago. Yes, a small chunk of that will come back to us when we do taxes next year. Nonetheless, money does not buy happiness, it only opens the door to the park. Happiness comes when you play inside.

So, I look forward to a few months in the summer, when I get to be Superdad. And while I bemoan the current situation, I plan for some time in the park–as much as I can get.

First morning home

Shi Hui runs out of her bedroom, and immediately charges into a chorus of “Mao! Mao! Mao!” Which, of course, means “Cat! Cat! Cat!” She runs after them holding a doll, which she uses to make furtive petting motions in their general vicinities. Our deaf cat is especially able to manage her affection, but the two youngest cats run away. Shi Hui gestures toward them, “Mao!” She commands. They are unbowed.

Finally, after breakfast, my wife unboxes a set of older Barbie dolls. Concentration and quiet happens. It’s time for laundry and mail and a thousand other chores as we settle back into our lives at home.


So, we came to China with virtually no Chinese between us. We have a couple of translation programs that work fairly well going from English to Chinese. Other way? Not so much.

I can ask, “Does little sister want to go swimming?” or “Do you like apples?” We work on a thumbs up/thumbs down system. I can show her our house on Google Earth and tell her, “We live on the second floor” or “That is your room.” There is much nonverbal communication. Katherine asks how I know what Shi Hui is saying. I tell her, “I don’t, but I can tell what she is feeling.”

And for the most part, our new daughter has a demeanor of which anyone would be jealous. She laughs often. I tell her “Little sister likes to laugh a lot,” and follow it up with, “Papa likes to laugh a lot, too.”

Until tonight. I do end of the day duties. Routine, routine, routine. In the middle of The Cat in the Hat, right before Thing One and Thing Two make their appearance, a cloud settled on the girl, and she started crying. Patience, and a smattering of questions, “Are you scared?” “Do you miss your friends?”

And I wish she could tell me her story in a language I understood, and I wish I could understand the language she speaks. But in some small way, I know it doesn’t entirely matter. Even if we did speak the same language, would I really undress how she felt?

I think I can understand around how she feels. I can imagine, and also recognize that there are failures and gaps in my imagination. I can run to the bathroom, and come back with a handful of tissues, and can sit with her, and ask questions, and show her pictures of the flowers her mother planted in front of the house where she will live, and tell her that in 2 days we will be home. She clicks on that translation again and again. Maybe, maybe, that is what it takes for now.

The Restaurant Three Blocks Away


We only ate out of the hotel four nights. Rain and relative ease (otherwise known as a menu in English, even in the Chinese Restaurant) kept us in, but three blocks away the food was about half as expensive and twice as good. Tonight we revisited some favorites: sautéed eggplant cooked in a clay pot; sautéed green beans; barbecued pork; stir fried vermicelli.

This was not a highly recommended restaurant in Lonely Planet, or any another guide, but the flavors were dense and distinct, and the dishes were fairly complimentary. The portions were satisfying without being overwhelming. And after our third visit, we were treated like friends.

We learned that the new daughter does not like shrimp, scallions, and Szechuan peppercorns. Katherine points out that there is no Lo Mein, Moo Shu, or General Tso’s tofu (favorites at home). Go figure.

I recognize that we will be hard pressed to replicate these tastes and flavors back home. But we will look!

Last hurdles

Tomorrow morning we head to the US consulate in Guangzhou to apply for a visa for our new daughter. The consulate in Guangzhou is the final stepping stone for anyone in China who wants to immigrate to the US. Every family that adopts a child anywhere in China goes through the consulate in Guangzhou.

We are somewhat fortunate that Shi Hui is from Guangdong province, and that all are in country bureaucratic hurdles took place in this same city. Yes, that meant we were not traveling about the country and that we did not see more of China, but to be honest, the sight seeing opportunities were slim. We were otherwise occupied.

So, tomorrow at 8:30, we head in passports and application in hand, and we should receive Shi Hui’s travel visa by 3:30 on Tuesday. Fingers crossed for a smooth morning.