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Capturing the Spirit of Adoption

A recipe for celebrating the joy our children bring and the tapestry of adoption. By Laura Rittenhouse

In addition to fielding basic parenting questions like "How was I born?" and "Why do I have to share?," adoptive families must also answer questions about what adoption means. As a Caucasian woman who adopted my daughter from China 5 years ago, I rarely get to choose when to talk with her about adoption. Taxi drivers, fellow shoppers, and others we meet as we navigate Manhattan's streets force the issue asking, "Is she your daughter?" For parents who have adopted internationally, intrusive questions and the subsequent loss of control over when and where to talk with our children about adoption may be viewed as a curse, a blessing, or simply a fact of life. To help us explain adoption, abandonment, and racism to our children and to each other, families who belong to Families with Children from China (FCC), a non-profit mutual support organization, have met with experts in the field. After attending many such discussions over the years, I noticed that parents repeatedly asked the same questions. Either they weren't hearing what was said or they needed something more.

For this and other reasons, I decided to try to come up with a way to capture and celebrate the spirit of adoption. I asked other adoptive parents to help create a liturgy to celebrate our experience in a sacred space; they said, "When do we begin?" Like me, adopting their children is not just the cherry in their life, but also the ice cream and the sauce. At the same time, though, adoption stirs up a host of difficult issues-the loss of our biological connection, racial prejudice, and emotions about birthparents which range from joy and gratitude to fear and jealousy. In the case of most Asian adoptions, there is no knowledge and no conceivable way to gain knowledge of our children's birthparents. As a result, for many adoptive families, they exist in the shadows of consciousness or not at all. Yet, I've long believed that my feelings about my daughter's birthparents influence how she learns to see herself.

The purpose of celebrating the spirit of adoption was to acknowledge both the facts and mysteries of our adoption experience. We chose a date in late September to coincide with the Autumn Moon festival. This is celebrated in Asia as a time to give thanks and remember loved ones who have departed. As birthparents greet the harvest moon, we are told they send silent messages to their children far away. In the service, we would publicly acknowledge birthparents and thank them. At the same time, because the service mirrored stages of grief-pain, acceptance, and forgiveness-we carefully tucked packs of tissues in all the pews. The attitude of the other parents I talked with was echoed by leaders at Manhattan's Marble Collegiate Church where I am a member. They offered their sanctuary, the services of their talented organist, refreshments, a hall to serve them in after the service, and printed programs. They also volunteered the ongoing support of minister Ron Patterson who was exactly the person we needed.

Over 4 months, leaders from three organizations discussed logistics and liturgy. It was the first time members of FCC, GIFT (a group representing Korean adoptive families), and Also-Known-As (the group representing teen and young adult Korean adoptees) had worked together. Literally meaning "work of the people," our liturgy began to take shape as we found words and music-sacred and secular, western and eastern, concrete and symbolic-to express the tapestry of our experience. We drew on the wisdom of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, pantheistic, and other faith traditions.

On a bright Sunday afternoon, over 200 children and adults, adoptive families and their friends showed up for this first Autumn Moon liturgy performance. Beginning with a prelude of Chinese music played on a bamboo flute and a 24-string instrument called a zheng, the music segued into a hymn softly played on the organ. Abruptly, in the ensuing silence, a Buddhist bell rang out to signal the entrance of Korean drummers. Twirling their drum sticks and pounding out a window-rattling beat, these 13- and 15-year-old Korean adoptees marched down the center aisle followed by a procession of their younger Korean brothers and Chinese sisters. Dressed in red, pink, and turquoise brocade, the children carried paper lanterns that danced at the end of long bamboo sticks. As they all gathered to face us on the chancel stage, we stood to sing, For the Beauty of the Earth.

Then, barely visible to the right and left of the chancel, Jill Larson, a soap opera star and mother of Lily from China, and Mark Andrews, a former Indiana radio announcer who was adopted at birth, read poetry and prose, giving palpable voice to our children's missing birthparents. Lynn Franklin, a birthmother who made the difficult decision 27 years ago to place her son for adoption, read a letter penned by a Korean birthmother asking forgiveness from the son she did not know. Broadway stage veterans, Jane Seaman and Tom Vaughan, sang Stephen Sondheim's anthem, No One Is Alone, reminding us, "People make mistakes, mothers, fathers, Holding to their own, thinking they're alone. Honor their mistakes, everybody makes one another's terrible mistakes, Witches can be right, giants can be good, you decide what's right, you decide what's good...." Placing a white and black tallis over her floor length, robin's egg blue Hanbok, Lily Lavner, 15, introduced herself as a Korean American adopted Jew, bat mitzvahed just last year.

As she sang from the Torah, I noticed Ron Patterson's tears. Choking back emotion, Kathy Urbina read about love from First Corinthians. Her tears shone as she recalled the moment 5 years ago in China to the very day, when she first held her daughter Zoe. As children toddled in and out of pews and down the aisles, a reporter from the Chinese World Journal later described the bedlam as a carefree atmosphere in a solemn space.

Mid-service, the youngest children led us all in singing four foot-stomping verses of We've Got the Whole World in Our Hands. Then Sarah Saffian, read from Ithaka, her soul searching chronicle of reuniting with her birthfamily. In a passage that might have been written especially for our service, she spoke of how she learned to simultaneously honor each of her multiple mothers. At the reception after the service, a/k/a volunteers poured cups of coffee and punch. Children turned cartwheels and chased each other as the Chinese musicians showed off their instruments. Parents ate moon cakes and talked about what the second annual Autumn Moon Liturgy service might be like.

Ironically, the week before the service, I learned that my daughter was getting teased in her first grade class because she was adopted. It was her first experience of this. Shaken, but proud, I listened to her teacher describe how Lianne had stood up in front of the class and explained that adoption was when your first family couldn't care for you and you found your forever family. The next day she asked to bring her book, Horace, to read out loud. Horace is about a spotted animal adopted by a family of striped animals who learns that belonging happens when people love you and not about how you look. When she brought the book back home, I noticed that on the last page in uneven block letters she had spelled out: THE NSPRT OV ADSHEN. "What's this?" I asked. Without looking up from her coloring, she said, "Oh, that's Celebrating the Spirit of Adoption."

Laura Rittenhouse lives in Manhattan with her daughter Lianne.

An excerpt from Ithaka: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found, read by the author, Sarah Saffian

The night before my birthday, I was hurtling in a taxi down the FDR Drive at eleven-thirty, coming home from my parents' house. All at once, the literal significance of a birthday hit me like an eighteen wheeler. It was not just an occasion for a party and cake and jokes about getting older, but the anniversary of one's birth, a profound event. It dawned on me that the influences from my various mothers were not mutually exclusive, that the realness of each woman's motherhood didn't diminish the realness of the others'. From Kathy, who was my mother by circumstance, I gained my sense of right and wrong, my organization, my discipline. From what I remembered of Nancy, my mother by adoption, and what my father and relatives and friends told me, I could see her emotional, intellectual, feminine nature in myself. And now that Hannah, my mother by birth, had reentered my life, I was exploring what I had inherited from her, discovering that perhaps there was more than merely bone structure and eye color between us. Just as each of these three women had distinctly affected and continued to affect me, each had her own day. Mother's Day was reserved for Kathy, in that she was Mom, the person whom I immediately thought of as mother, my current and steadfast one. It was on December 26, the anniversary of her death, when I contemplated Nancy and all she had been, as a person in general, and as my mother in particular. And now I saw that my birthday, February 23, was Hannah's own personal mother's day, because at my birth, she was the only mother I'd had. She had spoken to me while she was pregnant with me. She'd had second thoughts about giving me up toward the end of her pregnancy. She had held me after I was born and felt pride when she looked at me through the nursery window. She had made the sacrifice of surrendering me so that I could have a stable family. She had thought of me in the years afterward, wondering how I was. She had sought me out to let me know she cared about me. And since contacting me, she had been consistently sensitive to my needs. Even though she had only been my mother actively for those few first days, she had mothered me from a distance all along. I began to cry quietly right there in the shadowy backseat of the cab, saying a little prayer to Hannah, thanking her and all my mothers.

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