adoption

Balancing

By Peggy Denial For about a year, my husband and I were involved with our son's biological family in a major legal battle over adoption, custody, and other aspects of Matthew's daily life. After living in six different homes, Matthew moved in with us almost five years ago. His maternal grandparents, who rarely visited him, had most of the legal control over his life.

In these circumstances, I've been more dependent on practice, while at the same time, it has been more difficult for me to practice. I had to return to the most elementary practices, especially when my fear of Matthew's being taken away was highest. While meditating, I could follow my breathing using the words "in" and "out," but not a more complex gatha. Some days all I could do was recite the three refuges, and I needed to recite them almost all day long to keep a minimum of calm in my life. I did almost no work. I wasn't able to write. I had difficulty seeing other people.

Almost every day, it seemed as if the practice was not working. The pain did not go away. I stayed calm as long as I kept my focus on practice, but once I let my mind wander, I immediately lost my calm. I thought about Sister Chan Khong's recommendation in her book, Learning True Love, to stay mindful of each task. I tried to be aware of what I was doing. "I am chopping vegetables." "I am washing dishes." "I am putting my son to bed." I was deeply aware that Matthew was with us now, and I tried to stay mindful of that fact in the present moment. But the moment also included the court battle, and I was deeply afraid. Each day I'd alternate between feeling that this practice does not work and feeling that I don't do it right. Yet each day I returned to mindfulness. I had nothing else to lean on. My husband encouraged me, and I reminded myself that practice has always worked in the past.

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I see now that the practice was working all along It was keeping me calm and present. A lot of the time, the present moment was very difficult. It wasn't that I wasn't present; I just didn't like it. However, by staying calm and present those many months, I was able to practice Right Speech and Right Action so as not to make a bad situation worse. I was also able to seize an opportunity to change the situation.

After one court session, I saw an opportunity to meet Matthew's birthmother, Linda. I had to make a split-second decision. Because of my daily practice, I saw the opportunity and knew how to use it. We had been kept away from Linda by her parents, and I was unaware of how much she wanted to talk to me. When he was three, Matthew was taken from her because of criminal abuse and neglect. She had not taken advantage of her right to visit him in seven years. For about forty minutes, I was able to listen deeply to Linda. And I held her for a long time after that. I was able to let her know that I did not judge her for what she did to Matthew. 1 was able to assure her that we would take care of him, and to let her know how deeply grateful we are to her for bringing him into the world. Without the practices of deep listening, deep looking, and deep holding, I could not have been there with her. And I could not have helped her turn this situation around.

Two weeks later we met in court again. Linda told the judge that she no longer wanted to fight the situation. She said that she had been very angry, thinking that we were taking Matthew from her, but now she understood that this was in Matthew's best interest. She talked about her love for him and the deep pain in her life. She said she understands that Matthew wants to be adopted and that she wants to be able to give this to him. Later, I told Matthew what she had said. Now he feels differently about her. In time, when they meet again, it will be possible for them to heal their wounds.

Peggy Denial, True Spiritual Wonder, practices with her family and the Sonoma County Sangha in northern California.

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Got White Rice?

By Lien Shutt I was born in Saigon in 1964. My birth mother was a clerk at the American Embassy. When she realized that she was dying of cancer, she asked her boss to help her find Americans to adopt my older sister and me. In 1973, European Americans adopted us. Because my adoptive parents worked for the State Department, part of my upbringing was overseas. In between these overseas posts, my parents moved the family to Virginia with the specific purpose of, in their words, "Americanizing the children."

In the early 1970s, the concept of "multiculturalism" had not been developed, at least not in my parents' consciousness. Although my parents sponsored two refugee families from Vietnam, I had no other consistent interaction with other Vietnamese. The concept of helping me or my siblings retain or access our racial and cultural heritage was not part of my parents' thinking.

My parents were good-hearted, kind people who raised us the best they knew how. They both told me that going to Vietnam in the late 1960s changed their lives, opening up their worldview. But they are also the products of their upbringing, generation, and culture. For them, the United States' overseas actions were helpful and necessary efforts to assist "developing" nations. In no way did they consider their actions race-based.

As part of my "Americanization," I was baptized and raised Presbyterian. My mother was a devout Christian and attended church regularly. As a child, I was required to attend church regularly. In my early teens, I realized that what was preached and what was practiced were two very different things and I refused to go to church anymore. I even became quite antireligion. But while my experience with Christianity did not work, I knew something was missing in my life.

Glimpses of Buddhism wafted in and out of my life. During my first year of college, a good friend and I talked about learning to meditate, but nothing ever came of it. In my early twenties, I had a Thai friend who practiced Buddhism and had an altar. I wanted to ask her about the practice, but somehow never did. And then we grew apart. Four years ago, when I first moved to San Francisco, I lived just down the street from a Zen temple. I walked by its locked doors several times and noticed the people going in and out. I did not see any people of color. After several months, I got up enough nerve to call the temple. No one returned my call.

Then, in 1997, a Vietnamese American friend had told me about the Day of Mindfulness at Spirit Rock. I had read a few of Thich Nhat Hanh's books, including Peace Is Every Step and The Heart of Understanding, but had never been to any of his events.

My friends and I arrived together and found a spot among the large crowd on the hills. The event had not started. I wandered around, feeling overwhelmed by the size of the crowd (approximately 2000) and the fact that it was mostly people of European ancestry. I sat down on a little knoll behind the crowd. There, looking at the bamboo stage with two tall palm fronds swaying in the wind, I began to cry. I tried to resist. I reminded myself that I was among strangers. But, against my own will, I felt my heart softening. I cried uncontrollably, with large, gulping sobs, and felt release.

I also felt a sense of coming home.

Later, as Sister Chan Khong led the Touching the Earth exercise, this feeling deepened. The ritual grounded me. I had always thought that I needed to return to Vietnam before I could really "heal." The practice helped me understand that my connection to the universe was not dependent upon a sense of place. It also helped me see that the universe can contain all our emotions, including our pain. For me, the exercise rested on the vital Buddhist principle that we can touch peace by accepting the here and now.

I believe that Buddhism has a distinct resonance for Vietnamese- or Asian Pacific Americans such as myself. For Asian Americans, there is a level of understanding, a level of affinity that comes from a family or cultural background we may not even recognize until we begin sitting. Buddhism has a certain flavor for us that it may not have for others.

An analogy I keep thinking of relates to eating rice. In Saigon, I grew up eating white rice almost every day. Here in the West, we are told that white rice is not as nutritionally sound as brown. Trying to be health conscious, I have eaten brown rice, but I prefer the taste of white rice and eat it almost exclusively. There is nothing like the taste of white rice for me. And the smell of it cooking is the most comforting smell in the world!

Currently, I practice with a Sangha of people of color. We are a nondenominational group. I tried several other Sanghas in the Bay Area, but was turned off by the lack of racial diversity and the coolness of my reception. While I acknowledge that my path back to Buddhism adds its own unique difficulties, Sanghas must address their lack of diversity if they want to be accessible to Asians and other people of color.

On one level, lack of diversity in our Sanghas reflects current race conditions as a whole. At a People of Color retreat last year, many Asian Pacific Americans and mixed-race Asian Pacific Americans talked about how Buddhism was part of their family background but they had not been aware of it because of assimilation or acculturation.

On another level, it can be difficult when European Americans do not understand why practicing with a Sangha that does not have many people of color "should be" a difficulty. Many do not contradict my experience outright, but repeatedly talk about how finding refuge with a Sangha is a hard task for all of us. They move immediately to offering absolute truths. On one level, I agree, but on another, it is only a subtler form of racism.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about relative and absolute truths by discussing the way we look at ocean waves. When we look at waves, we may decide that there are big waves and little waves, or high waves and low waves. We may see the beginning of a wave and the end of a wave. But if we look deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. Water is its essential self. As long as a wave thinks of itself as a wave, it may become sad or happy, with superiority or inferiority complexes, and it may fear death. When the wave sees that it is water, it will never have such worries. It transcends the notions of space and time, and comparative judgments.

Relative truth is a wave. Absolute truth is water. This teaching is true for all of us. The absolute  truth is that we are all connected. We are the same. The color of our skin does not matter. But the relative truth is that we live in an imperfect world. Racism exists. Race itself is a social construct, made up of how others perceive and, therefore, relate to us. Our society is not "colorblind"; the historical experiences of people of color must be taken into account. I may know that I am water, but as long as others see me as a wave, I will be treated as a wave. And, while you may see me as water, as long as others see me as a wave, that is how I am treated—especially if, like the media, they have the power to distribute their concepts of how they see me and others like me.

In the absolute world, how I decide to experience my world is the key to freedom; in the relative world, my perception can impact the immediate moment only so much. I may know that the person who called me a "Jap" and tells me to "Go back where you belong!" as she beats me is only saying such things out of ignorance, fear, and personal pain, but this knowledge doesn't change my need for stitches in the gash on my head. Nor does it change the social structure that allows such acts of hatred to occur. I may think I am an "American," but if most people perceive me as a "foreigner"—as reported in a recent study on Asian Pacific American race relations—then I will be treated with less rights if not outright hatred.

Racism and other oppressions are based on relative truths. Like most people, I want to live in a world of absolute truth, but the world is filled with relative truths. For me, a major gift of Buddhism is the ability to sit with complexities; to see, acknowledge, and be able to contain both truths. So, even if brown rice is "better" for me, I prefer white rice. I have tried brown rice. In my everyday, relative world, the taste of white rice is sweet and feeds me on a deeper level than nutritionally. And, while white rice may taste especially divine to us Vietnamese or Asian Pacific Americans, finding Sanghas in the United States that serve white rice is hard.

In his teachings on the Four Noble Truths, Thich Nhat Hanh says that we must learn to "embrace" our suffering. An important part of my practice is to fully experience my suffering; to fully accept the impact of relative truths on my life. In an oppressive system, creating conditions in which the disenfranchised question their experience is half of the objective—"Did he really mean to touch my breast on that crowded bus? Maybe she just didn't see me here in front of the line? When she said to bring a guest to the party, does that include my (same sex) partner? Am I overreacting or being too sensitive?" In an oppressive system, self-validation is an act of conscious, mindful concentration, and to accept that one's experience has merit is a revolutionary act.

In the West, we try to alleviate pain immediately. Have a headache? Feel depressed? Take a pill. Then, you can go on with the "important" things in life. Similarly, in Buddhist practice, we may rush to master the Third and Fourth Truths before fully accepting the full implication of the First Truth. A deeper observation of the First Truth needs to be emphasized in practice. As a product of this society, I too run for relief from my pain. Often I run to absolute truth, to the belief that if only we all operated from an absolute truth viewpoint, then things would be different. I try to push away the pains of relative reality.

My practice challenge is to understand that in every ocean, there are waves, and to see that while those waves may take me to the other shore, the trip will not always be smooth. Undertows and tsunami are also part of the nature of oceans. My challenge is to not wish that I were somewhere else, to not pretend that these forces are not happening, or to rush to figure how they could or should be different. My challenge is, first, to fully be with what has arisen. To be with the ocean as she is: as water that contains waves.

Lien Shutt practices with the Buddhists of Color Sangha in the San Francisco Bay area.

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From Sicily with Love

Finding My Family

By Name withheld by request

“In Gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my blood family. I see my father and mother, whose blood, flesh, and vitality are circulating in my own veins and nourishing every cell in me. Through them I see all four of my grandparents whose expectations, experiences, and wisdom have been transmitted from so many generations of ancestors. I carry in me the life, blood, experience, wisdom, happiness, and sorrow of all generations. The suffering and all the elements that need to be transformed I am practicing to transform.

I open my heart, flesh, and bones to receive the energy of insight, love, and experience transmitted to me by my ancestors. I see my roots in my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, and all ancestors. I know that I am only a continuation of this ancestral lineage. As a continuation of my ancestors, I bow deeply and allow their energy to flow through me. I ask my ancestors for their support, protection, and strength.”

—Touching the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh

“Margherita.” My mother’s name means daisy, and she is indeed as delicate and as beautiful as that flower. Born into a large family in Sicily in 1950 during an economic depression, she was introduced to the dark demon of abandonment at an early age. The Puzzo family had three boys and two girls, and was not able to financially support them all. Knowing that the boys could provide income for the family by working in the fields, the family gave their two little daughters to the local orphanage, “Il Boccone dei Poveri” –– roughly translated: “A bite of bread for the hungry.” At just four years old, my mother was alone, scared, and without a family.

Four years later and six thousand miles across the Atlantic, Mary had just finished burying her forty-five-day-old son who had died of pneumonia in Brooklyn, NewYork. Overwhelmed by grief, yet still full of the desire to love and to nurture, Mary and her husband, Joseph set about organizing an illegal adoption for an orphan child. At eight years old, my mother found herself on a boat with a lawyer, headed in true United States-immigrant-style for the Statue of Liberty.

Unable to overcome the loss of her first child, my grandmother, although still yearning to be a loving mother, treated her adopted daughter with anger and resentment. If Margherita misbehaved, she was reprimanded with such comments as, “You are not my real child, anyway.” Or, “Is this the thanks I get for taking in a rejected orphan?” This lack of nurturing and the concrete garden of the Brooklyn sidewalks made it difficult for my mother to blossom into the beautiful flower she was born to be.

As the years passed, the communication between my mother and grandmother did not improve. At twenty-two, my mother left my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn for an apartment in Manhattan where she spent a year working at Saks Fifth Avenue and enjoying financial freedom for the first time. It was then that she met my father, who was traveling from South Africa on business. At a party of a mutual friend, Albert and Margherita got drunk on red wine and fell headfirst into what they both thought was love. My father returned to South Africa, but after telephoning and writing each other for six months, they decided to get married. Seeing this as an opportunity to begin anew, my mother flew to South Africa with visions of creating a secure and loving family of her own. She invested her idea of happiness into her marriage and two years later, in a small clinic in a suburb of Johannesburg, I was born.

It was a turbulent marriage from the beginning, as my father had a restless heart. On his frequent business trips he met many women who were responsive to his good looks, quick wit, and irresistible charm. After eight years of marriage and the birth of my brother Joe, my parents divorced.

My mother’s world was shattered as she confronted the ruins of her broken dream with two small children. Filled with anger, the three of us returned to the United States. She did not tell my father that we were leaving, and forbade us to ever speak to or see him again. “He is the ruination of our home,” she would often say. “If I ever find out that you love him, or that you speak with him, you no longer have a mother.” At four and six years old, my brother and I took these words to heart, and promised our mother that to us, our father was as good as dead.

Starting My Healing Journey

As the years passed, I began to feel an undeniable longing to know my father. As this longing grew, so did anger and resentment towards my mother. Though she worked hard to give my brother and me everything we asked for, and though there was always delicious home-cooked food on our kitchen table, we were emotionally starving. My mother’s inability to forgive my father was poisoning us all. I began to feel a strong compassion for my father. I knew that he had attempted to contact us children many times, but that my mother had prevented it. I understood how my father must be suffering, feeling rejected and abandoned by his own children. At age sixteen, I began to communicate with him secretly through letters and telephone calls. Initially, he resisted my attempts to get to know him. He felt hurt, and believed that my brother and I hated him. He had constructed a wall of guilt, sadness, and confusion. It took several years of loving and compassionate listening to earn back my father’s trust, but today I enjoy an open, loving relationship with him, though our communication is infrequent and he still lives far from me in South Africa.

Ironically, it is the parent I lived the closest to geographically with whom I felt the most distance. The anger I had built up for my mother was insidious; it grew and disguised itself so well that I did not recognize its true face until one day, I found myself with no desire to speak to or see her. I left home at sixteen, eager to leave New York City and my mother’s biting resentment. For ten years I traveled around the world searching for a place I could call home. At age twenty-two, just like my mother, I found myself in a foreign country, engaged to be married. But several months before the wedding, I became very ill. I developed a severe hormonal imbalance, producing seven times the amount of male hormones normal for a woman, and three times the normal amount for a man. My subconscious rejection of my mother and my own feminine self was physically turning me into a Superman! Sometimes not able to leave my bed for days, I fell into a deep depression––vomiting, crying, and yet praying constantly. The wise insight of my body told me that I was not ready to provide my partner with a stable love and home. One month before the wedding––dress made, invitations printed––I broke off the engagement. Although I desperately wanted to stop traveling and to plant my roots somewhere, the anger that festered in my heart against my mother prevented me from being able to love myself fully. I knew that in order to be able to settle into my own skin, I’d have to deal with my internal rage. How could I ever expect to be a loving mother if I could not love my own?

Four years have passed since the onset of my illness. I can now see that my anger at my mother for not being able to let go and forgive my father was part of my problem. However, my own inability to forgive my mother mirrored her difficulty and prevented me from feeling compassion for her and for our relationship. I am tired of fighting with my anger, and am ready to forgive. When my grandmother passed away three years ago, my mother yelled and cursed at her until the last breath left her body on her deathbed. I do not want to repeat this.

My spiritual practice is helping me to dig into my dirt, to unearth the brittle and withered roots of the maternal and the Goddess within me. Today I celebrate the eightyear-old Sicilian orphan girl who still dances in the music of my mother’s laughter, basks in the sunshine of my mother’s eyes. I embrace this little girl as the same uprooted little child taken from her home in South Africa. Breathing in, I smile at the wounded Sicilian cells within me. Breathing out, I prepare myself for the road of practice which lies ahead.

I know that I need to go to my mother’s village in Sicily to look for the family that she believes has forgotten her, in order to start this healing process with her. I have only the family name and the name of the village. So I go forward, step by step, with forgiveness in my heart and love as my guide. I try to remember the uncanny parallels in my mother and in myself, both in our internal and external lives. I trust that the daisy-bud within me, the precious Margherita, has already begun to blossom, and that one day I will be able to pass this beauty on to a small flower of my own.

Traveling to Sicily

It’s seven in the morning, and already the blistering eighty-degree weather has filled the hotel pool with several guests and their children. It’s one of the hottest summers in Southern European history, and Sciacca, a popular tourist destination in Sicily, is filled to capacity. I’ve ended up at the only hotel room available, at the five star Hotel delle Terme––way beyond my budget.

I pick up my knapsack, slip on my Birkenstocks, and head down to the bus stop, in front of the Franciscan monastery at the piazza in the center of town. I’m armed with only my mother’s last name and the name of her village. Deep breath. I’m on a mission to find my family. I’m in God’s hands.

After a pleasant walk through the bird-filled central park, I arrive at the modern, bright blue bus parked with its doors closed. In front of it, smoking a Marlboro light, stands a young guy. With his stylish haircut and sunglasses and his golden chain glistening over his dark curly chest hair, he looks stylishly out of place in this antiquated little town. He smiles as I approach him, and I find the strength to mutter my pieced-together question: “Scusi, ma voglio andare a Montevago. Cuando parte il pullman?”

He takes off his sunglasses and looks at me with kind blue eyes and a big smile. He tells me that the bus leaves in twenty minutes, and asks me where I am from.

“New York.” I say.

“Me too!” His response surprises me, but immediately I can see him blending in with the Brooklyn Italians that hang out every day at Sal’s Pizzeria on my corner. His name is Vito and he was born on Grove Street in Ridgewood –– the same street where my mother’s high school still stands, the same sidewalks that my mother walked on to school for four years. We are both amazed at this coincidence, and immediately he becomes a sacred ally on my mission. I confide that I am going to Montevago to look for my mother’s lost family, but have no information other than her last name. He asks me her name.

“I know everybody here and there is only one Puzzo left in Montevago, my friend Guiseppe’s girlfriend Maria’s father, Vincenzo. All the others left for other parts of the world, or died.”

Vito assures me that if my family name is Puzzo, then this Vincenzo will know something about them. Maria works at Guiseppe‘s flower shop on the outskirts of Montevago, and he says that he’ll take me there directly. The monastery bells chime eight o’clock and Vito turns to open the bus doors.

Finding My Family

On the ride to Montevago, I notice how the landscape of Sicily is a beautiful balance of masculine and feminine. In between rugged lines of jagged brown stones sprout bushels of bright green prickly-pear fruits and deep purple grape vines. The horizon is vast, open, and welcoming, yet the valleys run deep and feel in places desolate and abandoned. I can feel the appropriation, the subjugation, and the violation of this island’s history embedded like ancient seeds in its soil. Simultaneously, its resilience, pride, and commitment to survival spring forth in every flower blossom and luscious ripe melon.

The big blue bus pulls around in front of a tiny yellow storefront. “Maria!” Vito yells, while honking the horn. “Maria!” Again, I am instantly transported back to Brooklyn.

“Che? Che?!” A tiny yet tough female voice calls out from behind the plants and trees lining the bright stone storefront. A few seconds later, peering nervously from behind the tinted bus windows, I see a short girl of nineteen or twenty sprint from behind the green jungle and walk defiantly towards the bus. “Si, whaddya want?” Her gait and her energy are feisty and strong, though physically she is very skinny and delicate.

Vito tells her that I am here looking for my family. Maria’s expression changes to one of profound curiosity. I feel my mother’s fiery energy coming from her. Even her eyes radiate my mother’s temperament. I can feel my blood in her. My heart beats faster.

Maria boards the bus cautiously, peering in at me. “Are you Theresa’s daughter?” Maria asks me, studying my face carefully. Theresa is my mother’s sister, and I know that I have found my cousin.

“No, I am Margherita’s daughter.”

A space of silence hangs heavy in the humid air of the bus before Maria’s big brown eyes begin to well with tears. Overwhelmed by relief and disbelief, my heart is swollen and sits heavy in my heaving chest. Maria and I stare at one another, speechless.

“Mamma mia....” Vito’s deep voice breaks the weighted silence, and Maria and I turn to see him taking a handkerchief from his shirt pocket to wipe away the tears rolling down his cheeks. Vito seems to be both a man and a very old woman. I recognize him as my angel, my divine charioteer.

Vito’s reaction brings Maria’s composure back, and, wiping her eyes, she snaps back into her old self. She remembers that my mother’s brother is about to have one of his life-long wishes fulfilled––to reconnect with the sister he never knew. Grabbing my hand, she looks me squarely in the eye. “Come on, let’s go. My father will want to meet you...what is your name?”

Deep breath...my mother has finally come home.

Sharing with My Mother

My short time in Montevago was filled with love, joy, tears, stories told over espressos and home-baked Italian pastries. Pictures were taken, gifts given, and lots of spaghetti was eaten. However, it was the anticipation of my return home to my mother in New York that filled me with the sweetest delight. I was eager to share with her the pieces of her past that I had found, and to see how she would respond. I knew that this was a sensitive part of her life, and I was curious to see if she would open to it.

Returning to New York, my mother seemed overjoyed at my journey, willing to receive what I had brought back. Sitting at the dining room table, I spread out the pictures of me with her brother and her aunts. I placed the rock I had taken from the rubble of what was once the house she was born in on the table, and shared stories of each wonderful family member I had met. “They love you so much, mama. They miss you so much.” She looked at each picture carefully, curiously fingering the outline of her brother’s face. “I don’t have his nose, thank God.” She laughed. There was a precarious joy in her, an awakened inquisitiveness, still too new to be understood or defined. “I’m going to visit them.”

A few months later, my mother left for Sicily. She stayed a week with her brothers, met the townspeople, and traveled, seeing everything as if for the first time.

The meeting with her family was not one of carefree joy and celebration. With hearts still heavy, heads still carrying years of confused stories and misunderstandings, my mother’s return home was wrought with anger, confusion, and many unanswered questions. Upon her return to the States, she said that although she may never return, she felt that she had fulfilled a kind of duty and for that she is happy. Though she may never fully understand exactly what happened, she knows that a bridge has been re-built, a severed root re-connected so that new stems may grow––and in their own season, bear bright new blossoms.

Author information withheld by request.

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