Sunday, May 24, 2009

Notes on Vocation and Inheritance

Just as the semester ended, I read Fanny Howe's The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation, a memoir of her life, work, and coming to faith (Graywolf Press, 2009). While, as a sometime scholar of her sister Susan Howe's work, the autobiographical elements intrigued me, what were most compelling were the meditations on time, spirit, poetry and, yes, vocation. It's one of those books immediately dog-eared, appreciative checks pencilled into the margins. When I look back at these pages, not all passages appear as significant as they did at the pencil-wielding instant--yes, egalitarian teaching is a good thing, and yes, vocation is crucial for the "complete attention" it offers us. Other passages will last longer outside the text, like a paragraph citing Jacques Lusseyran, a man who survived the holocaust; his wisdom (like Howe's) merges with commoner sense: "'Light is in us, even if we have no eyes'" (93). Howe's comments on repetition and revision also bear repeating and revising: "Often a poet will use repetition by not repeating the same word in one poem. Instead the poet will almost repeat or rhyme a sound but not quite. Almost suggests there is a margin of uncertainty around your thinking. It reminds you that there are echoes that bounce up and away and all is wildness" (150). Or: "Revision is the opposite of repetition and religion" (150). Or "In revising you teach yourself. You find your own information buried in your body. It is still alive until you are not" (167). And a marvelous thought, grounded in pedagogy, like so many of her meditations: "Walt Whitman shows that in poetic thinking, the ideas that triggered the poem are never stated, exist only in the past, and are never introduced into the poem as its subject. Instead the poem arrives as an effect of these ideas and as a result of discarding many possibilities" (163). How true, and yet how difficult to "teach." Except to say: repeat, revise, repeat.

I have lost track of a passage that made me angry, though not as angry as I would have been six or seven years ago. That I cannot find it here, now, makes me wonder if it might instead be located in Howe's earlier book of essays, The Wedding Dress, which I sampled recently, as well. In the sentence I cannot find, Howe posits that she wants something natural, not adopted (where adoption is artifice, opposed to what is organic). The language allows us to make such distinctions because the word "adopt" can mean everything from adopting a child to adopting a position you do not believe in. Crucially, it can mean "to act," as opposed to "to be." Yet this trick of words is not harmless. Adopted families are often looked at as less than "natural," as "fictions." My mother-in-law, a guardian ad litem for abused children, tells me the state is given money by the feds for re-uniting biological families, but not for putting children in distress into adoptive families. Where there is money, there is sure to be a moral code worth investigating.

When I first became an adoptive mother, this distinction hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasn't that I didn't harbor some unhelpful assumptions of my own--most of us do--but that I had not realized what it meant to be on the other side of them. All adoptive parents, especially those whose children look very different from them, have stories about strangers and friends who ask insensitive questions. My children are asked all the time about their "real parents" by friends at school. "Real" is another of those words that suggests our family is something other than genuine. (When one of Sangha's best friends asked me where we "found" Sangha, I responded by asking him where his family "found" him. What came after was a long story about his mother's divorce and her marriage to his "step"dad.) My skin crawls when Maya Soetoro-Ng is referred to as Barack Obama's "half-sister," when their relationship is clearly one of wholeness, not of fractions. Adopted, step, half: all these words impugn the reality of relations based on something other than blood.

At the time, I reacted by rejecting that "reality," abhorring the usual family politics of relation as resemblance, the comparison of noses and profiles and laughs that families use to emphasize their connections when they feel them. (Physical resemblances between family members who cannot abide each other probably result in narratives of another stripe.) I wrote poems, quarreled with people, opposed the priority of blood families as if I could defeat it on my own terms. If the windmill was resemblance, then I was Donna Quijote, galloping toward it with a baseball bat, aiming to take it out and replace it with what I thought real, namely the emotional and spiritual connections that define my family to me.

And then the other day, I took a portrait of Sangha and Radhika dressed up for May Day celebrations at their school and realized, once I'd downloaded the photo, that Sangha's face resembled my father's. Sangha's smile, his face, was my dad's. That their skin and hair colors differed did not matter; there was an intimate resemblance there. This reminded me that early on in my motherhood of Sangha, then just over a year old, I looked back at his stroller and saw my father's face--my father as an old man, not a child. This happened more than once, most vividly at Times Supermarket (the name of the market seeming over-determined as I write this parable of inheritance). The effect was powerful but not frightening; after the initial shock and perplexity, it seemed right. When Radhika came along, she seemed very like my mother in many ways: Radhika makes constant faces, has a talent for sarcasm, and lacks a sense of direction (except in the sense that she always goes the wrong way).

Has my mind engineered resemblance to assure me that we participate in a lineage, that Sangha is my son just as I was my father's daughter? Is there a spiritual link between my kind father and my kind son (kind in more than one sense) that expresses itself in my reading of their smiles? Does the German Frederick William bear a spiritual relationship to his Cambodian grandson, Sangha Frederick, whom he never met (my dad died in 1992; Sangha was born in 1999 and adopted in 2000)? Does resemblance then matter as much to me as it does to others who have not had the occasion to think about it as much, or with so critical an eye? Or is this another way of showing that resemblance merely represents connections it cannot enforce?

[editor's note: please read the entry that follows this one, but appears above. The reading of Fanny Howe here is not quite right.]


na said...

What a lovely post. For what it's worth, I see a distinct resemblance in Sangha's and your smiles, too. (Just look at your last Holiday card)

Molly Gaudry said...

Adopted at two, in 1983, I went back to Korea in 1999 on a Homeland tour and had the chance to reunite with my biological father's side of the family. Growing up in Ohio, I always wanted to look like someone, anyone, in my family; over time, I got used to being the only Korean in town, in school; still, it was something of a shock years later to discover a feature-for-feature resemblance to my half-sister. Although I have not had contact with any of them since 2000, I often wonder what she looks like now.

It's a terrible post (poorly delivered rant), but there's a photograph of us here:

susan said...

Thanks for writing, Molly. My husband, who was half-adopted, found it important to see himself in his bio-dad. I don't see the physical resemblance myself, but it's important to him, so that's enough.