Berlin January 1990: Grey monoliths fill my mind. Soviet bloc apartment buildings shuddering under the strain of a leaden winter sky. Pale colorless people shuffling onto trains and subways, pushing through crowds, moving in uncharted circles in their new world.

The euphoria of November 9, 1989 has faded away. The instantaneous and miraculous transformation from bleak palette to vibrant hues has not taken place. The reality of a long slow slog towards unification is seeping in, like an overused tea bag; at times bitter and weak.

I descend on the city in my youthful naivete. The words “Checkpoint Charlie” and “shoot to kill” echo vaguely in my mind, but I have yet to make the connection between phrases my mother dramatically uttered and the grey conglomeration of buildings I am now seeing.  Slowly, slowly, my sheltered Western eyes open and I see another world laboring to cast off the concrete shackles of this former Eastern Bloc.

We ride a tram from Potsdam back to comforting West Berlin, where neon lights and the frenetic pace to grab life and devour it whole are what we know, what we consider normal.

Hunger stirs us. I reach into my purse and pull out three precious oranges, oranges I had to buy at the market in Braunschweig, because they were Oranges From Morocco.  As I pierce the skin with my nail, the sweet and tangy aroma of oranges makes an almost visible trail through the train. Babushka-clad old women, men wearing sensible hats stir as the bright orange trail rushes by them. But they don’t look up, they don’t look at us, the spoiled Westerners defying the silent and morose atmosphere.

Is it habit? Is it ingrained in them to not stare, to pretend they see nothing?

We share the oranges among ourselves, and then it hits me.

Oranges From Morocco here are like unicorns.

I feel guilty and ashamed for having this wealth of fruit in my bag, sorry that I don’t have an orange for every person on that train, relieved when we step off the train and step back into the throbbing metropolis of West Berlin.

Berlin January 2004: I step off the train at Zoo Station. I choose Zoo Station because of U2. I look around me, and I don’t know where I am. I look to the east, to where colorless cement once met the sky on a cold day fourteen years earlier. I don’t recognize anything.

I see a homogeneous city of riotous color and lights. The Pied Piper of Consumerism has played his seductive tune, to great success.  The Wall that once tore the heart of this city into two pieces is now commemorated by a thin brass line.

No more babushkas. No more somber train cars. No more rows of sightless windows peering from cement rectangles over the scuttling city below.

I stop for a moment. I wonder if Oranges from Morocco are still unicorns here, or are they commonplace, like tabby cats in alleys. Does anyone stop at the sight of them anymore?

Like a comet tail, that narrow swath of orange perfume has widen, enveloped the city, crossed and blurred the borders between East and West. The unusual has become part of the scenery, shaded in to blend with the everyday.

In my mind, I see the jubilant orange colors, made all the more vibrant for the grey that once contrasted it. And I am glad I was there for it.

Thank you, Berlin.


The Dirtiest Four-Letter Word


*Lisa’s note: I wrote this in response to many a friends’ frustration with being told to “just……” in response to predicaments in which they have found themselves. It’s not meant as chastisement, but rather a check to see how we are responding, and maybe give us a more effective way to help. I’m really trying to be a better person, and this is part of my path.



Just” is the dirtiest four-letter word I know. And I know a few of them.

Well-meaning people (and I count myself in that group) have told others, “Just blah blah blah….” in an effort to be kind, caring, and help provide a solution.

Here are my issues with using this word:

A.) It implies that the person you are “advising” is too stupid, ignorant or lazy to have come up with such a simple solution as the one you are “just” proposing.

Yes, folks have EUREKA! moments, and sometimes they need a nudge in the right direction to come to that point of clarity. But truth be told, we’ve probably run over that hamster wheel of thought many times already. We’ve factored in as many variables as possible.Telling us to “just” whatever is not really helping.

B.) It says that the problem at hand is not a big one, not a hard one to solve, and ergo, really not important.

It must be true, because the solution is so facile, you “just” have to whatever whatever whatever……

You are making a mountain out of a molehill, because the answer is right there.

Note: when you’re a mole, a molehill IS a mountain.

C.) It tries to diminish the impact of something you may be doing.

“I was just joking.”

But words hurt. And as the old adage goes, in every joke, there is a grain of truth. Your joke may fall on deaf ears.

“I was just having fun. I was just trying to help. I was just being cautious.”

The truth is often the opposite. The fun or help or caution can be more harmful, but using “just” to describe what you did is an attempt to take way the sting of your action or inaction.  That little “just” could be the straw that breaks someone’s spirit.

D.) It’s shrugging off someone else’s dilemma.

What may seem so self-explanatory and plain in your view does not factor in what someone else is going through. Everyone has different extenuating circumstances. To apply a One Size Fits All mentality negates another person’s reality. You cannot take what would work for you and expect someone else to successfully translate that into his/her life. And you would not want someone else to do that to you.

I get it. This advice-giving comes from a place of wanting to help. Or a place of wanting to mollify oneself because you don’t know how to help. It’s common, and we don’t do this to be hurtful.

Everyone is going through something, and sometimes, we want or HAVE to tune out. So we offer the “just blah blah blah” wisdom.

I personally would prefer to hear the following:

“I understand.”

“I’m sorry this is happening.”

“You are going to be okay. I am here to help you.”

“I can do (fill in the blank) for you. Would that be helpful?”

“I’m here, let’s talk.”

Or anything like that.

It’s not judgmental. It isn’t reductive. It isn’t demeaning or dismissive.

It’s supportive. It’s loving.  It’s being kind.

And we need so much more kindness in this world.

I love my four-letter words. But I am banishing this particular one from my lexicon.



Online Dating in the Ice Age

Getting an ice machine for Gnocchi Bar was very much like online dating.

While I cobbled together all the other equipment for the restaurant from the used equipment listings, the ice machine was the one piece of equipment I was ready to splurge on.

I perused each ice machine’s profile, looked at pictures, and tried to envision what the actual machine would look like. More importantly, would it be the right fit for my world.

Height, weight, dimensions, output, ratings….. the similarities to online dating are striking.

And just like dating in the cyber world, I shared ice machine profiles with trusted friends.

“What do you think? Is it worth the money? Is this what I need? Will it be adequate or outstanding?”


With a wee tremor in my hand, I finally clicked the “buy” button, and watched the dollars magically disappear from my bank account.

Three days later, the Day of Destiny, Mr. Right The Ice Machine arrived.

It was smaller than I anticipated.

It was noisier than I expected.

It has more moods than I think an ice machine should have.

And it goes “thunk” when it drops a load of ice.

Maybe, just maybe that profile photo was, ahem, filtered.

In warmer weather, we cheer it on, offer it encouragement, coax it to completion. “Come on, baby, you can do it!”

In the winter, it overproduces ice, because that’s EXACTLY when you need more ice.

Swipe right, swipe left. But please close the bin when you’re done

It’s not the perfect machine, but it’s MY sweetie now.







He crunches cans like cereal every morning. While the rest of the neighborhood sleepily struggles to fill coffee mugs and shakes  kibbles into bowls, he has littered the sidewalk with corpses of aluminum cans.

Sometimes he is on the left side of the street; other days he is on the right. Different street side, same measured strike of his foot. Can down, foot up, aim steady, strike. Can after can transformed from hollow cylinder into flat disc.

He appears to be in his sixties, but age is just a number. His face says more about his life than a numerical symbol ever could. He has stories, this I know. If I was ever brave enough to get closer, I could read them in the cursive written on his face.

His clothing speaks of pride in his appearance. He may be just crushing cans, but no sweat pants and ratty tee shirt for him. He wears a blazer and a collared shirt.  His boots are sturdy and no nonsense. No need for a mallet or fancy can crusher. His boots will do just fine.

The flattened cans spread out over the sidewalk, creeping towards the street. Bulging bags of cans patiently wait their turn. He is their gravity, keeps them from scattering across the street and into traffic. They orbit around him, smattered to the ground.

I drive by him every morning. Every morning I resolve to ask him his story. Every morning I chicken out.

I want to ask him where he gets the cans. Does he scavenge for them in dumpsters during the wee hours of the morning? Does he haunt parking lots? Does someone collect them for him? Where does he take them once they are compressed? Is this his main income, or does he fancy himself a good Samaritan saving Mother Earth? What do these cans mean to him? Why does he do this?

But I don’t stop. I drive on, watching him, but not looking, because it’s rude to stare.

In my mind, the cans are hopes and dreams. He is the janitor of failure; he takes those empty shells, and ruins them so that they will not tempt again. He tidies up after us.

Dream down, foot up, aim steady, strike.

But see, the dreams don’t die. They get turned over, recycled, reformed into shiny new cans, to be filled with effervescence, refreshment, life.  They are given sparkling new labels, sexy and alluring. They entice and beguile all over again.

They are bought, emptied and tossed. New label, old dream, same result.

Dream down, foot up, aim steady, strike.

And I drive by, once again without stopping.



Catharsis with Coffee

The tensile strength of a woman’s heart is measured in decibels of silent tears.

Quiet tears, hidden tears.  Tears of joy, elation, shock, sorrow, heartbreak, anger, failure and triumph.

They are salty, seasoned generously with our emotions. Their voluptuous shape belies the arid reservoir of strength from where they flow. Their bitterness is bas relief to the sweet release they bring.

We forget we can cry, that we even know how. We deny these tears exist. We push down, shoulder on, steel our resolve. We feel our heartstrings pulled, like thin wires heated over and over again, stretched into gossamer strands that carry the weight of our world.

When we do cry, we cry furtively, wordlessly, secretly in locked cars, public bathroom stalls, under the drumbeat of the shower. We choose places where our anonymity can be preserved, so no one, NO ONE, will see us broken and torn.

Tears. Tear. Torn.

The salinity of our tears corrodes the wires of our heart. The rust gathers, devouring us until the wires unravel into a maelstrom of emotions.

They do stop. Eventually.

They have to.

Life clamors for our attention, our presence.

We mop up the flood, and realize our heartstrings are whole, intact. They are more flexible, capable of carrying greater payloads, more gross tonnage.

We gather the rust and ocher of these salty tears and mix them like tempera paint into bright colors, colors that give our lives punctuation, emphasis, contrast and depth. They adorn the manuscripts of our lives like the illustrations in ancient scrolls.

We don’t cry publicly, but you see our tears in our hard-won wisdom and grace, in our beautiful strength. You hear their echo in our stories. You understand their worth when we break your fall with our compassion. Their silent decibels shout out through every strong woman.

Listen. Listen closely.

A Dragonfly


It’s a strange thing, to be abandoned at birth.  You have no history, you have no connection.  You cannot look back and trace your roots, find the commonalities with other people who have the same quirks, looks, and mannerisms as you.  You just don’t know who you are.

You cannot even try to survive, because as of yet, you have no survival skills.  None.  You are completely at the mercy of strangers, because your mother, the one you should be able to depend upon, is out of the picture.

I don’t know why my mother decided she couldn’t keep me.  And I don’t fault her for it.  It must have been a hard decision to make.  She put me out to sea, like a message in a bottle, hoping the waves would carry it to a safe shore and that someone would find it.

I did look for her, albeit reluctantly.  It was at the end of my tenure as a chef in Korea.  I was ready to leave Korea, feeling frustrated, tired, depressed and lonely.  Somewhere in the back of my mind there was a fleeting thought of finding her.  But I didn’t push the issue.

Reunions between children adopted into foreign countries and birth families in Korea are a big thing.  There are television shows about these reunions.  Koreans are an emotional people, and these tearful televised reunions are a catharsis from the collective shame and sadness of sending children to foreign lands for a better life.

Not knowing what to expect, I acquiesced when my cooks convinced me to look for my birth mother.  I didn’t really want to know what had happened to her, what she was doing in her life now.  But they flipped the coin on me, told me that if she was alive, she would want to know what happened to the baby girl she gave up almost forty years earlier.

I dutifully brought in my passport, the one that traveled with me from Seoul to Hawaii.  It was a piece of card stock folded into quarters, with my picture on it and some writing, a reflection of the economic hardship the country was going through.  It contained a scant amount of information: my original name, the agency that handled my adoption, official-looking stamps and that’s about it.

Once I gave the okay, my cooks tapped into the network of birth parent seekers with gusto.  One of them had his wife take me to the neighborhood where the orphanage once stood.  As we wandered around the maze of streets in downtown Seoul, there were a few old buildings remaining, but most of the structures were modern edifices, testament to the economic boom surging through the country.   All that history, gone, making way for shiny new things.

We stopped in stores around the area where the orphanage would have stood, but any traces of it were long gone.  No clues to what had happened, just dead ends, sore feet and dejection.

A few days later, I received a phone call from someone in an office somewhere who actually had my file and papers in front of her.  For a brief moment, I felt hope, and an emotion I could not quite identify.  Could it be joy?  She told me in her impeccable English that she was looking at my file, and had indeed verified that I was the original Ko Wan Kim listed.  But sadly, in the spot for parents’ names, there was nothing.

She invited me to come in to the office, to look at the papers myself, as though she thought I doubted the veracity of what she was saying.  I politely declined and hung up.

I sat for a moment, looking out of my office window on the thirty fourth floor and watched rogue dragonflies soar by.  They looked so carefree, rising on the warm air and painting the sky with streaks of iridescent blues, greens and reds.

And then the disappointment hit me.  Hard.

I realized I had been holding my breath, in a way, for the past forty years, wondering to whom I really belonged, to which clan I could finally identify with as my own.  The excuses for not looking, not hoping were always the same: Korea was too far away, my adoptive parents are my real parents, who really cares, and it doesn’t matter.  And secretly, wasn’t I really a princess and one day my royal family would claim me again?

As I sat there, I felt disconnected, like the dragonflies zooming past my window, so far away from their natural habitat flowing hundreds of feet away.  They had no business being up so high.  What did they think they were playing at?

Maybe I, too, had no business floating along air currents not meant for me, out of my natural habitat.  The cold downdraft of silence pushed my wings back to earth, back to reality.  I sat there and cried.

I never knew how much I wanted to belong until then.

I left Korea a few days later, for good, I think.  I don’t imagine that I will go back.

I know where my habitat is now, where I have created my own clan.  And maybe not having an identity at the beginning is just really freedom to write your own story as you walk along your path.


Stepping Out of the Shadow

The eucalyptus tree sentinel still stands there on California Highway 29.  It is the most northerly tree in a stand of siblings, notable for a big rounded scar that covers an old wound where a branch was removed.

I don’t know when it was planted, or how old it is.  I just know that whenever I am lucky enough to find myself back in the valley, I look for it.  Seeing it reassures me that some things are immutable, or at least, longer lasting than some of our lifetimes.

I was recently back there, in that magical valley, where so much emotion, tribulation, victory, elation and defeat were compressed into three short years.  It doesn’t matter from which direction I approach the valley, which road I take in, my hands start to shake, my eyes well with tears and I feel my heart ache and jump with exultation at the same time.  Every direction heads home.

When I left that valley in 2000, it took me a long time to come to grips with the rest of my life.  That may sound strange but when you work with someone who cast such a big shadow in your life, someone who gets into your mind and reworks the way you think, someone who pushes you to discover just how far you can fly, life without that person seems strangely bereft.

It took me over a decade to realize that I was good enough on my own, that I had merit, and that my path was not a mistake, that I hadn’t FAILED.  You see, I felt like I failed when I left that restaurant, that I had caved in and just couldn’t measure up.

When I first left that valley, I took a job in a coastal town.  My greatest responsibility was to come up with a daily pasta and fish special, and that was as far as I wanted to think. I didn’t have to worry about making sure labels were straight on containers in the walk-in refrigerator, or scour the parking lot for errant cigarette butts or sit in terror of knowing something was out of place but not seeing it until it was pointed out to me by The Daily Big Shadow.  I wasn’t getting up at two in the morning with stomach cramps and nausea because I was so worked up about a day that hadn’t even dawned yet.  It was a blissful relief to just make sandwiches for tourists, to put up simple fare, to have no expectations put upon me, to not worry about finding my own errors before someone else did.  It was a time to decompress, to discover what cooking meant for me in the absence of The Daily Big Shadow.

I struggled, boy did I struggle.  I hated telling people where I had worked because all of sudden, their expectations of what I should cook became ridiculous.  They wanted multi-course menus with all the nuances of that valley restaurant.  But I felt I couldn’t do it.  I was just one part of a complex dance, and being a “young “cook, I didn’t feel I had it in my repertoire to achieve such heights.

I also didn’t want my identity to be so tied up in that valley restaurant that all I would do with my future was reproduce a poor imitation of the real thing.  I wanted to have my own voice, my own identity.  Trouble was, I didn’t even know if I could sing.  I wanted to be recognized for my own talents and I didn’t know if I could even carry an aria, much less sing background vocals.

The other part that I hated about people knowing for whom I had worked was their opinions.  Everyone had to make some sort of judgment about The Daily Big Shadow, either dissing him or revering him as a culinary god.  It was weird, like people had to make TDBS accessible in their minds by judging him.  By attaching their assessments to his persona, they were able to grasp him, make him real, and get a handle on the phenomenon that TDBS had become.

Their expectations would translate to me, and I lived in such fear that I could not nor would not ever measure up.  Of course I could not.  No one can.  And we shouldn’t.  We should measure ourselves against ourselves.  Common sense, but I wasn’t listening.  I began to doubt my ability to cook at all.

I expressed those doubts by being demanding, by shouting, by pushing and by sheer arrogance.  I walked around with a huge chip on my shoulder, justifying it by telling myself it made me taller.  In reality, it was weighing me down.  I carried that chip, which grew to a stump, which became a log, which evolved into a deep-rooted tree.  People along the way tried to help me chop that tree down, for it was blocking the sunshine out of my life.  But I was too comfortable hiding in its shadow, too afraid to be blinded by the pure sun to raise that ax myself.

It took a major heartbreak and several years of solitude to find the ax handle was in my grasp all along.  I flung myself into foreign countries, hoping to escape in the clamor of new cities ,wanting the unfamiliar din to drown out the familiar prickly whisper telling me that my efforts were futile, that I needed to start looking within.

There’s nothing like loneliness to make one look inward, and those four years abroad were some of the loneliest ones in my adult days.  I had to come to the end of myself to find the start of myself.

Since that time, I’ve learned to be comfortable in my own skin, to trust myself and to understand that the most important lesson I learned in that sunny California valley was more about self-confidence and respect than about cooking.

I am in a much happier place now.  I realize that the disapproval I felt was not TDBS’s but mine.  I know now that we each make our own road.  Some roads are elegant boulevards, some of dusty country highways and some are rough trails in a forest. Some are just brief impressions in sand, gone by the morning.  And that’s just the way it should be.  That deep-rooted tree has turned into a solid plank of principles and philosophies that guide me.  I stand taller because there is not a chip to weigh me down.

I am humbled that I had the chance to work in that magical valley, that I was given that chance to be a part of something so special.  I also accept now that I earned my right to be there, that I was not a charity case and that my work counted for something.  To admit that to myself was huge milestone for me.  TDBS put much into my success, but only because I did.

I am glad the eucalyptus tree still stands guard as an anchor for the many souls that flit in and out of that valley.  It is a visible reminder of the solid roots we developed so we could fly away and bloom.  I hope it will be there to greet me, and you, for many years to come.

Look for it the next time you are rolling down California Highway 29, and shout out a hello to it for me.  And then whisper a thank you.





Go Fly a Kite

When I was a kid, my sister and I would try to make and fly kites.  We carefully glued together chopsticks to form the crossbeams and attached paper to form the body.  We tied our creations to our bikes and pedaled mightily with the wind, only to have our joys deflated by the bumpity bump bump of the kite sagging and bouncing along the road behind us.

Undeterred, we decided that the paper was too heavy, so being the intrepid explorers that we were, we used newspaper instead.  Proudly sporting the Sunday comic section, our kites were ready to re-launch.  We primed our bikes, checked our knots and off we went, flying with the wind.

We may have flown, but our kites decided otherwise.  They once again sadly plummeted to earth and trailed behind us like forgotten streamers of a long-gone Fourth of July parade.

Surely, SURELY our kites must be too heavy.  There could be no other explanation.  With that, we fashioned more kites, this time using tissue paper as the wings.  Purple, blue, pink and green, our kites were little jewels just waiting to take their place against the summer blue sky.

Hope springs eternal; well, at least for us it did.  Undaunted, we set ourselves up at the launch pad, a gentle rise of the driveway.  After a final check by Mission Control, we revved up our engines and thrust ourselves down the runway.

And our kites dragged forlornly behind us.

Dejected and feeling much like Charlie Brown in his kite-flying escapades, we put our kites away and turned to face the rest of the business of growing up.  We did not give up hope completely; over the years we tried again and again until we outgrew our bikes and our childhood dreams.

It wasn’t until much later that it finally dawned on me that to fly a kite, you had to run against the wind.

Wow.  What a revolutionary idea for me.

To launch your plane, your kite, your dream, you have to fly into the wind.  That was such a novel concept to someone who had always been taught to not make waves, to fit in, to blend in and be one of the crowd.

Play it safe, play it conservative, don’t take chances.  This was the mantra of my childhood.  And I’ve been rebelling against it ever since.

Right now, I’m in the midst of getting another dream of mine to fly.  There are some strong headwinds that want to push me down.  They are coming from all directions.  Some winds howl that I’m not good enough, that I don’t know enough.  Other winds whisper in my ear that I will fail and I should just play it safe.  Some gusts echo in my head the negative things I’ve heard.  Little tornados lift my hopes, only to dash me down again.  They eddy and flow around me, unseen but clamoring in my head.

But there are gentler currents as well.  They are the ones that flutter around me, telling me I cannot fail, that failure is just another step towards knowledge.  They rustle my confidence and breathe fresh air into stagnating hopes.  They rally to my defense, tell me not to give up.  They cool my raging anger at the impossibility of it all, and provide just enough of a breeze to kindle the fire. They form an invisible string that attaches to my kite and pulls it up, making it airborne.

And so I will run into the wind, because it seems that is all I know what to do. I stand on my launch pad, checking the gauges, ready to run into the wind, colorful kite in hand.  Let’s fly!


Like Riding a Bike

This past weekend, my husband and I decided to go for a bike ride, to celebrate me successfully completing another 365 days of my life.  I had not been on my bike for five years, so when Hubby suggested we go for a bike ride, I was, oh, a bit uncomfortable at the idea.

When I told my husband that I was nervous about riding a bike, he looked at me incredulously and chuckled just a little at my fears.

Despite having ridden a bike through my childhood and college years, it was only about five years ago that I decided it might be a good thing to buy a bike and start riding again.  Hubby and I dutifully went off to look at bikes, and we settled on a pretty white one.  I sat down on the seat, pushed off to test drive it, and immediately fell over.  On Green Lake Drive.  On a busy warm spring day.  With all kinds of cars and people going by.  Ker plop.  I was down.

A gorgeous road rash burst into bloom on my knee, and a trail of blood starting gushing to the pavement.  The sales person was even more shaken than I was, getting me back inside the shop, having me sit down, and running off the fetch the first aid kit.  You know the whole rushing around with arms flailing in the air?  Okay, it wasn’t QUITE that dramatic, but it was close!

Having demolished their supply of Band-Aids and earned my Red Badge of Courage, I wrapped a piece of gauze around my knee, steadied my shaking hands, and yup, got back on that bike.

So you can understand, perhaps, why the thought of getting back on the white beast really was freaking me out.

Happily, the day ended with me NOT falling off the bike.  I even remembered the combination for the bike lock!  Hey hey, success!

As we made the circuit from North Seattle to Woodinville and back, I was back in Hilo, on my red bike with the pink streamers and sparkly paint.  We, the neighborhood kids, rode with impunity through our neighborhood.  We taunted barking dogs, terrorized sleeping cats, climbed hills and pretended that our bikes were jets, spaceships, horses, race cars, tanks and time machines.  Our bikes were so much more than just vehicles moving our childhood memories from one adventure to another.  Our bikes are what made our static drawings of childhood adventures into living breathing moving pictures, filmed in Technicolor with a hefty supply of Bacitracin and Band Aids at the ready.  Our bikes made us INVINCIBLE!

I wasn’t always a super hero on my bike, and am still very much NOT one.  My fledgling super hero days in bike riding involved countless crashes into the wild olive bushes that lined the end our driveway.  My mother would run alongside me, holding the bike steady and then PUSH!  Off she would launch me, telling me to PEDAL PEDAL PEDAL to gain speed and balance.  And nine times out of ten, I would pedal directly into the green embrace of those olive bushes.

I don’t know when or how I figured out the whole balance on two wheels thing, and I must admit, whoever was the first one who thought that it was possible is pretty much a genius.  And no, I am not an avid bike rider now.  I mean come on, it just doesn’t make sense!

But what I cherish when I’m riding, what I get from being back in the saddle is that return to the Super Girl of my youth.  So when you see me pedaling sedately by, just know that inside, Super Girl is doing backflips, wheelies and jumping curbs, making those sparkly pink streamers at the end of the handle bars fly in the wind.



Being Connected

I have always known I was adopted.  I think my parents told me as soon as I could comprehend what that meant. They didn’t want it to be that traumatic skeleton in the closet, a la soap opera plot line (cue organ playing and heavy stage curtains parting now).

I cannot tell you when I learned my birth name, or the events that led up to my arrival in America because those facts were taught to me quite early in life.  They were always a part of my childhood landscape.

I thought I had adjusted myself quite well, thank you very much, to being an adopted child.  Indeed, with so many adoptees seeking their birth parents and being open about wanting to know their history, much of the drama was gone, at least for me.  It just wasn’t a big deal.

I even turned down the opportunity to find my birth parents a few years ago when I was about to leave my post in South Korea.  It was my cooks who insisted that I find my birth mother, convincing me with the logic that even if I didn’t care to know what happened to her, SHE would want to know what happened to me.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I didn’t care.  I just always assumed that she was dead and that I would one day meet her in Heaven or wherever one’s spirit goes and then I would be able to ask her all the questions I’d been hoarding for that moment.  I still think that.

My search in South Korea turned out to be fruitless.  In my flippant way, I told others and myself that this indeed proved my theory that I had been dropped onto this planet by aliens.  It was an easy way to cushion the disappointment.

A little over a year ago, my husband got me a genetic testing kit.  He said that it would be helpful for me since whenever I get asked family health history questions, I always have to pull the “I don’t know, I’m adopted” card.  I duly spit into the vial, and off it went to Central Headquarters courtesy of the United States Postal Service.

I received my results a few weeks later.  It was oddly comforting to know a bit more about my genetic makeup and what health issues I might face in the future.  I was fascinated at how “they” were able to trace how much of each gene pool I have in me, including 3% Neanderthal, whatever that means.  (I checked, I still don’t have hair on my knuckles nor do I walk with them dragging on the ground a la the common cartoon caricature, sorry to disappoint.)

Another feature of this service was the ability to find blood relatives.  I didn’t give this much thought, until a few days ago when I got a message from someone who shared a maternal great-great-great grandmother with me.  Maybe there should be one more “great” in there.  I don’t know, the whole how many times removed thing just confuses me.

I debated on answering that message.  I mean, I’ve been living my “solitary” life for the last 40 plus years.  No harm, no foul.  Never been troubled before about needing to know “my people” or having to belong.  I was quite happy in my circle of genetic uniqueness.

But hey, what the heck, right?

So I answered.  Surprisingly, my fourth cousin pinged me back almost right away.

That ping cracked my heart.

I never realized how alone I felt until I got that message.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have a loving sister, a husband that I treasure, friends that are gold and so much more.  I do not lack in the love and support department; indeed I count myself very blessed.

BUT A BLOOD RELATIVE.  Wow, the concept was staggering.  All of a sudden, in a few lines typed on some computer in Minnesota, I had a connection with someone who shared an ancestor with me.

Trippy, amazing, overwhelming.  I had to sit and just cry.

I don’t expect to automatically form a bond with this woman.  I think as we get to know each other that will or will not happen organically.  I don’t believe you have an affinity for someone just because you share a bloodline.  I do believe this woman is kind and shares many of the same emotions as I do, and I look forward to learning more about her.

I do wish we could have known the grandmother we shared.  I want to sit at her feet and hear the stories of our family, hear our history however long or short it may be. I want to see the characteristics we share, put a home to some of the quirky traits I have, have an explanation for why I do the things I do.  I want to connect.

My life hasn’t changed drastically since this discovery last week.  I still do dorky things like forget to put water in the coffee maker and so on.

But I do know now, not just on an intellectual level, that I am not alone.

And that’s awesome.