Monday, December 21, 2009

Red Thread Cooking

As a metaphor for the magical and invisible connection to their homelands, the red thread is a concept very familiar to people with kids adopted from China. “It represents the link between you and your birth parents,” we say, and “It’s the symbol of how proud you are to be from China.” I’m sure we drone on so much about it that our kids wish they could use a bit of their own handy red thread to bind up our chattering yappers.

Still, the symbol of the red thread, no matter how many times it is invoked by earnest parents, is such a powerful image that I wonder if it isn’t time for it to be claimed by us grownups, too. The red thread was meandering through my thoughts on a recent Saturday morning when a group from Families with Children from China gathered at Sociale. It’s a “meal preparation store,” the central idea of which seems to be guilt assuagement for people who really hate to cook but would like to pretend otherwise. The gist is “we do all the thinking for you, but because you scoop the garlic and the frozen vegetables – from separate bins, mind you -- into the Ziploc bag, you can tell everyone you cooked dinner.” I’ve noticed these joints sprouting up in the locations formerly occupied by aerobics studios, beading emporia and paint-your-own-plate establishments. If only I could predict what people will be clamoring for five years in the future – Knitting circles? Finger painting studios? Brew-your-own-beer parlors? then I would be one rich marketing maven. In the meantime, I’m tying on my pristine apron and chatting with my pals, most of whom are veterans of the process and who have brought along empty laundry baskets to fill with completed dinners. I wouldn't be surprised if someone pulled out a hairnet and slipped it on, for that Lunch Lady look.

There are people here that I met at waiting family events, when they seemed so confident and I truly wondered if I could even manage to change a diaper. There are people I met at weekend playgroups, when our kids crawled about and drooled and we, maybe for the first time that week, let our guard down with each other, knowing no one would ask, “Is she your daughter?” We’ve worked on committees and gotten into spats and been on camping trips and seen each other acting less than our personal best as parents. All that history ties us together. So we chatter on about our kids, and about whose husband has found a job and about who thinks she should be prescribed psychotropic medications for being crazy enough to enroll both of her kids in traveling soccer. And, in between the ordinary stuff, we talk about Theresa.

Theresa is the reason we are here today -- the slender, serene and honey-voiced woman who is the mom of Emma Xinhua, age 14, originally from Jiangsu but now of Golden Valley, Minnesota. Theresa, the woman who performs as the Moon Lady in our annual kick-off skit at Culture Camp every year, and who looks better in a form-sitting cheongsam than anyone has a right to, has been dealing with ovarian cancer for some months now. We want to know what we can do to help, and, like countless generations of people before us, we come up with one answer – food. Theresa may not feel like eating much, but she has a daughter and a husband and a home to run, even when she is sick. And because of the red thread, we are here today – the vibration of her illness sent waves through this tightly knit group, and now we’re putting on aprons and plastic gloves and helping in the way that seems to make the most sense – by making dinner.

On this particular Saturday morning, I am realizing how much I care about these people who were strangers 14 years ago. We all quickly understood how connected we were to that darling bundle of Chinese orphan that we adopted so many years ago, but I think that very few of us realized at the time that we were not just forming a family but, blessedly, entering into a community of other families like us. Because of the depth of spirit and commitment of parents in our Families with Children from China group, we now have an extended family that mirrors our own enough to feel – and forgive me for sounding a little Dr. Phil-ish here – safe and supported, both for us and for our kids.

While we are working, we talk about another of these meal-making events, held some months ago, for the family of a dad in our group, the father of two girls from China, Grace Shu and Julia Qiao, who suffered a stroke. Someone mentions, as she scoops pork chops into a round tin, that, as much fun as she is having today, she hopes we don’t do this again for a while. “Maybe for a happy reason,” someone else says, and someone else adds wistfully, “Maybe for a baby.” The thought of a happier, life-filled occasion brightens the atmosphere.

As I stack up Theresa’s meals in the cooler, I find myself thinking about another happy occasion, her 50th birthday party, just a few years ago. I remember her slinky black dress and her sparkling eyes. She and her husband had the first dance when the jazz combo started, spinning around and around while all her friends watched. When Hal spun his back to the group, I could see her glowing face over his shoulder.

That’s the deal with life, I think, patting down a bag of pork chops to make room for some saucy chicken breasts. One minute it’s Gershwin and a dress you squeezed into and wonderfully unsensible shoes. The next minute, it’s the Parade of Phone Calls, everyone with an anecdote about someone Just Like You who not only Beat this Thing, she’s now running triathlons. And the poles of those two moments – the spaces between the Fabulous Dress and the Sympathetic Phone Calls – that’s where all the rest of life happens. What stays constant is the people who stay by you, whether you weigh 25 pounds less and look so much better in evening wear than they do, or whether you’ve lost all your hair and are too weak to leave the house, so they bring over a dumb movie you can both watch between your naps.

All these well-meaning meals, I think, as I make a trip to the freezer with a three-portion tin of Ginger Pork Tenderloin. Mentally, I try to wrap a bit of red thread around each item, weaving some prayers and wishes that I hope will stick to the pans and the bags. Strength. And courage. And knowledge of the love of this group, this rumpled bunch of Saturday morning people who have made so many of the same journeys as Theresa has, and who must now stand back and watch her make this particular one on her own.

We are most certainly connected. The little stuff like being “blood relatives” doesn’t mean much to people like us, who already starting moving beyond the constraints of DNA when making families of our own. Given that, it seems hardly unusual that despite deep dissimilarities in politics, religion and worldview – and, even more significantly, with some of us living in Minneapolis and some in St. Paul -- that we’d find a way to be a community. We know that a family is more than being born into a group. Sometimes you make the family yourself, with a little help from the People’s Republic of China. And when you do, you tie that red thread around a group forever, connecting not just China to your child, but yourself to all these other parents who are walking along the same path.

There isn’t a recipe at the end of this blog, because it's really not about the food. True, I hope Emma and Hal and Theresa enjoy the Mean Green Chicken Wraps and the Peachy Georgia Pork Chops, but the actual composition of the dishes is beside the point. This particular Saturday, it was all about the red thread. I hope Theresa senses that thread, and feels its power, with every warm and nourishing meal.

Stay well, Theresa.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Shimmy in Place of a Crow: New Year’s Resolutions Redux

Whenever anyone asks me what my New Year’s resolution is going to be, I always say, with complete seriousness, that this year, I’m going to start smoking. Just saying these words out loud drives everyone around me crazy, especially my children.

Each year’s conversation, predictably, goes something like this:

Children: What do you want for Christmas, Mom?

Me: Ashtrays. And lighters. I’d ask for cartons of cigarettes, too, but you’re probably too young to buy them legally. I’m really going to stick to my resolution this year!

Children: Squeals of dismay, followed by: Plead, plead, plead. Lecture, lecture, lecture.

I grew up in a household with two chain smokers who favored unfiltered Chesterfields, in quantities approaching “bulk,” so my lungs have surely seen enough tar and nicotine to last a lifetime. But a gal can dream, and I always picture myself as Bette Davis. Early years Bette, that is, before the emphysema got her.

In addition to my perennially doomed smoking-related resolution, I try to make one additional promise to myself each year. Two years ago, it was to never refuse a request to volunteer for any task, no matter how odious, for the next twelve months. Good resolution, it turns out. It was a busy year, a surprising year, and a year in which I made several new friends. It was also a year in which I reminded myself why volunteering at my children’s grade school made my armpits itch, but that’s another story. On December 28 of that year, I met a friend for coffee and she arm-twisted me into joining a board of directors to a non-profit group to which we both belonged. I felt like asking her, “Couldn’t you have waited four days to ask me, when I’d be knee-deep in cigarette cartons, plowing through my next year’s resolution?” But I accepted, and, honestly, I can’t say I’m any the worse for wear.

Last year, I determined to master bakasana, or crow pose, in yoga. As a marginally adequate but enthusiastic yogi, I have progressed enough in seven years to refrain from falling over whenever we have to stand on one leg, but I lack the arm strength, confidence and inner peace to manage even the most rudimentary arm balance. Last January, it seemed suddenly possible. When the teacher would announce time for crow, I’d think, “Today’s the day.”

Resolution Update: It’s December. No crow. I’ve rediscovered the fact that, in addition to moving too rapidly downhill or operating heavy machinery, I really hate to teeter. I would rather stay put, always. This, in fact, is why I like yoga in the first place. Bare feet, firm ground, and I’m not going anywhere. If you think I’ve missed the significance of this as a metaphor for my own pathetic life, I haven’t. And I can’t even step into the smoking lounge to forget about my failure.

I did master something else this year. It became one of those mid-year resolutions that I allow into the mix when it seems as if the main resolution is already a lost cause. And it started because I was desperate when my Tuesday – Thursday yoga teacher quit. Since I had become, then as now, TPFSY (Too Poor for Studio Yoga), I had to find an acceptable substitute within the YMCA system, and the pickings, let us say diplomatically, were slim. I pined for Stephanie, my Tuesday/Thursday guru. Finally, emboldened, I decided to take a class That Was Not Yoga. This was a huge step for a woman who loves standing still on a mat. I laced up my sneakers and went to Wendy’s Zumba class. Ay caramba. It was as if the top of my chakra-aligned head had been peeled open, and a freshly mixed blender of frozen margaritas poured inside. Zumba is everything yoga is not. It’s fast and loud and crazy. I loved it, even though a glance in the class mirrors told me that the memory of Gwen Verdon could rest safely for the nonce.

So what if I danced like someone who had been living in Minnesota for sixteen years? It was almost as much fun as I might have had smoking, or doing crow pose, or doing crow pose while smoking.

I started bringing my daughters, then their friends, to class, and we took over whole corners of the studio with our enthusiastic gyrations. My youngest girl is a great dancer, and I couldn’t help but admire how this innocent little pre-teen could shimmy. Her shoulders never stopped shaking what the good Lord gave her, and then some. I, in contrast, had stiff, intractable shoulders that moved with all the grace and flexibility of a couple of bulldozers.

I resolved, mid-June, to perfect my shimmy. I watched my daughter carefully. I asked for pointers. I broke down the steps and moved very slowly at first, and then I built up steam.

And you know what? I’m not half bad. It’s not Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” It’s not even a sidekick shimmy such as Jane Russell might manage. But it’s me -- moving off my mat and shaking things up. And that might be the best resolution I’ve made – and kept – in a long time.