Pay Attention

It’s only eight miles out to Nine Mile Point. Apparently it must have been named for something other than its distance from my house. From my house, however, I can see the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station out the window any time I want, a plume of cloud by day and bright as fire by night, they keep it so lit.

Awhile back, I took my first drive out there to see it in person and up close. Actually, I was there to inquire about jobs, as the plant is one of the area’s largest employers.

Who knows what I was thinking:

“Hey, any open slots requiring a Master’s in Intercultural Studies? Or ordination?”

“Say, do any of your scientists require translation from Mandarin?”

Maybe I was hoping for something janitorial; I can’t quite recall. This was pretty near to the low point of our low Fall. And my mind was bursting to over-full. On the drive out I noted the slate sky and the stiff wind as trees bent noticeably even though bare. But mostly my mind slogged through all of our difficulties over and over again. They’d long since become what appeared to be beyond what we could bear.

Then my day changed.

I was less than a mile from my destination, and suddenly my windshield was filled with the side view of a pickup.

“What the…!? How does this idiot not see me? 

What in the world are you doing! Stop!

Yet he wasn’t stopping. Walzity-do-la-day, merry-as-you-please, here he came, right across my lane.

I jam on the brakes.

Veer left.

Screech towards him and brake harder, veering further left.

I’m going to hit him.

Broadside? No, perhaps I’ll eek out a front fender slam.

I’m still veering.

Whoa, could it be that I’ll possibly get so far left as to only clip his front bumper? Or, even so far that he’ll be hitting me…

Amazing how the mind can engage so many thoughts and possibilities during emergency.

Miraculously––though he never stops––I am (and it feels like finally) around him completely and out of the intersection, barreling towards the far shoulder of the cross road.

As I whip the wheel hand over hand like in those commercials warning such moves are for professional drivers on closed tracks, I continue to be flabbergasted by my friend now behind me:

What were you?! Didn’t your mother ever teach you to?

Directly in my path there’s a support wire for a utility pole, then some kind of brick sign or something, and I know utterly that I am on no closed track, even as my flapping hands sending the steering wheel in the other direction keep alive that niggle that tells me maybe, just maybe, however, I am that professional driver.

I’ve quit drifting left. Just miss the cable.

Fire hydrant! Shoot, now I’ve got to swerve way right. Still everything’s way too fast, and my choked-off questions continue vie for lip space with indignant spittle.

Finally it’s over.

I’m stopped along the gravel edge of the oncoming lane of my original road.

I whip my SUV into Park and whirl around to see the other guy. He’s on the same shoulder with his brake lights on. Obviously he must finally realize what he’s done.

I could have been killed, buddy

I could have killed YOU and had to live with it forever.

I put my hand on the door handle but don’t get out of the truck to go yell at him. I’m not even sure why. It wasn’t wisdom, as I wasn’t even emotionally regulated at the time. I wasn’t being chicken; I was outraged enough to be fearless. And it wasn’t laziness, as nothing can get me exercised like anger. Perhaps, more than anything, it was grace.

It was a matter of seconds driving down to the nuclear plant entrance, and I went through the gate with my heart still in my throat. I checked my rear-view mirror and imaginarily received the commiseration of the driver behind me, who must have witnessed the whole thing.

Dude, can you believe some of these drivers these days? I’m lucky to be in one piece

Hey, you’re lucky I was in front of you!

Then a different line of thinking:

Ooh, maybe God’s going to arrange things so this guy behind me is the head of some department here who has an open six-figure position for a guy with my exact (non)qualifications! And I’ll get the job based on his sympathy for this very incident

My mind sometimes. Tameless.


But my phantom future boss turned down a different side road, and I drove on in search of any building that looked like it had a door for the public. After circling a few parking lots, I saw a couple of guys walking to their cars carrying hard hats and plastic-wrapped uniforms.

New guys!

I drove over and put my window down to ask about applying.

“No idea, man. All jobs are posted on the website. Try that.”

Oh, right. 

He had just, effectively, reduced the experience of having my life put in jeopardy for the noble cause of providing for my family to one of having my life put in jeopardy in a futile exercise of stupidity.

“Uh, use the internet, dude.” I imagined him laughing at me.

Hey, in China we still do stuff in person, pal! I thought I could shout.

Instead, I pulled into a parking spot in order to immediately access the website while my hopeless subconscious conjectured possible bonus advantages for those savvy few who could access the company website from the epitome of proximity in the parking lot.

Alas, I got the same webpage I could have pulled up had I stayed home, and pretty much all of the postings were for people who had studied and worked with science and math and in nuclear facilities. Go figure. None were for people who were ordained, could masterfully order Sichuan meals, or had sat on a yak.

So I left, no less preoccupied than when I’d come.

But I was determined to not let it affect my driving, and I vowed to keep an eye out for crazies. I got back to the intersection of my incident and decided I’d take a picture of my tracks through the grass where life had flashed before my eyes. Instead I saw this:


Not only did I immediately come to the conclusion that severe mental preoccupation isn’t necessarily all that much safer than more forbidden forms of driving impairment, this harsh truth jolted me: I was the idiot. The danger. The fool who had almost gotten one of us killed.

Oh, dear God, thank you, thank you that I did not jump out of my truck and run over to his to give him a piece of my mind. 

(Obviously it’s apparent by now that I could have ill-afforded it, anyway, but that’s beside the point.)

And, of course, I thanked Him for sparing both of us.

That guy had done nothing. Other than have to watch me screeching toward him as I blew my own stop sign at 50mph.

I stayed pretty shaken up the rest of the day, to be frank, and as more days went by I grew rather philosophical about the thing. For there is no place in life where not watching the signs will pay off. Of course while driving, but I want to pay attention, period.

What do my kids need? What is happening right in front of me? To whom would God like to direct my attention just now? I want to pay attention to goodness and to beauty. To Jesus.

Right this minute. Life’s too important not to.

Sir, Are You Pregnant?

This is Part 4 in a 5-part Book Excerpt Series in the run-up to Orphan Sunday on November 8. Today’s short excerpt is a lighthearted list from a chapter called “The Boring Part.” Details on how you can pre-order your own copy of Lily Was the Valley: Undone by Adoption to follow soon! Enjoy.

Months went by. No matter which part of the process we found ourselves waiting in, it all seemed long. I determined one day to distract myself from another day-sweat picturing our dossier inch across someone’s desk. I made a list of all the differences I could see between expecting this baby and what it had been like to expect our other three:

Pregnancy is a very exciting time building toward one special date on the calendar: the due date. It is written in ink months ahead of time. It might be off, but it won’t be by much.

Adopting has building excitement toward countless due dates. There are more due dates than items on the dossier checklist. The big ones like LID and LOA and Article 5 and TA are generally celebrated with enough ballyhoo to make the casual observer ask if the home study had turned up any insanity in the family.

Pregnancy, often planned, may also come to a couple unplanned. Since the beginning of time people have procreated and borne children. It is an unstoppable force. It just happens.

Adopting is always premeditated. It is a conscious response to need or desire. It does not just happen. The dossier-savvy quip that people do not practice unprotected paperwork, and they do not experience unplanned adoptions.

Pregnancy is timed. Everyone knows basically how long it is going to take.

Adopting is not timed in the least. There are people who signed up for an adoption program with promises of a one-year wait and may have waited four. Or twelve. Others could have planned for four and waited less. [The differences in feelings brought on by the two kinds of waiting were dumbfounding.]

Pregnancy comes with visible signs of physical progress.

Adopting doesn’t. [Or at least it wasn’t supposed to. But having just moved back to the States after having dreamed for months about what, where, and with whom I would be eating, I was beginning to show. Concern really spiked when my jokes about being the pregnant one started drawing double takes.]

Pregnancy is not something you can hurry. People sell prenatal Mozart with promises of heightened intelligence, but nobody is throwing research dollars at experiments to reduce gestation to a more convenient, say, 25 weeks. No, the process is what it is, wholly necessary, and you cannot hurry it.

Adopting, on the other hand, has many points at which you might try to influence or hurry the process. You could switch programs. You could switch countries. You could widen the scope of special needs you will accept. When there is a snag in the process of dealing with multiple agencies across separate governments in two countries, the solution might be a simple workaround orchestrated within the adoption agency. Or maybe phoning your senator. Perhaps someone else is a candidate for a personal visit or a forceful conversation or a bribe. None of Tammy’s pregnancies required us to make decisions on best practices with any of those options. And in adoption they are all extreme exceptions. What is generally required and universally expected from the waiting family is only that. Waiting. Hurry up and wait.

Pregnancy cannot be slowed down. Barring something tragic, the process that began with conception will inexorably march forward toward birth. The “Honey, I think we should wait two years until I’m finished with my PhD program” conversation must take place before the pregnancy or not at all. There is no pause button and there are no two-year pregnancies.

Adopting can always be slowed down, ostensibly at the drop of any kind of hat you can conceive of. [We were forever waiting for news of this or that piece of paper. When the expected time of receipt for one came and went, we could only stab at possible explanations: Was it languishing somewhere on someone’s desk? Why? What if they were eating at their desk and spilled General Tso on it? What if it fell off the desk? What if it was lying in the crack between the desk and the wall? Reality quickly evaporated to make room for fantasy.]

Pregnancy is understandable by everybody. Which is understandable, as it has been around since, well, everybody. A majority of earth’s women will experience pregnancy. Many men live through one under their roof. Everyone has watched a mom or a sister or a cousin or a neighbor progress through its stages. We don’t remember being in our own mother’s womb, but it isn’t long afterwards that we know what growing bellies are all about. It’s common and normal, even if it is miraculous.

Adopting, on the other hand, is poorly understood by most, unless they’ve experienced adoption themselves.

Before we started our adoption process, I understood nothing.

Please Pass the Country Music (Part 3 in a Series)

This one’s dedicated to all my friends who live in Texas.

This is Part 3 in a 5-part Book Excerpt Series in the run-up to Orphan Sunday on November 8. Today’s excerpt is from a chapter entitled “Relentless Father.” Stay tuned for details before the end of the series on how you can pre-order your own copy of Lily Was the Valley: Undone by Adoption.

* * *

Tammy and I grew especially close to Yao Shu Ting, a ten-year-old girl that over time we came to call our “gan daughter,” something like an informal goddaughter. Yao Shu Ting was not a girl we could have ever adopted, not that we ever discussed it seriously. None of the orphans we worked with were adoptable, certainly not internationally. None had the paperwork, nor were they ever likely to.

We’d been visiting Yao Shu Ting for almost two years before an aunt in town, who I’d also only just learned about, dropped a bombshell on us when she mentioned that the parents weren’t dead, you know. No, I did not know. Horrified, we strove to imagine what could lead parents to abandon their own nine-year-old to live on her own. We later learned it was a baby brother. They could only keep one of them.

We were never going to be like parents to Yao Shu Ting. It didn’t matter how much compassion and fondness we had for her, two or three visits a year did not make us significant people in her life. Part of us wished we could bring her to live with us. But not really, as that would have been quite difficult on her. What she really needed was a local family to take her in as one of their own. Still, we wished our connections could have been more frequent, and more significant. But in the end we were only two more in a long line of the well-intentioned but ultimately non-providers of all she truly needed, destined to recede into the background.

One time we did have the privilege of hosting Yao Shu Ting for a few days in our home in the big city. She was there for an appointment with an eye specialist, but it seemed like her visit was over almost before it started. She was missing her regular life. Our loud house had to feel foreign and uncomfortable compared to her normal solitude. It was time to take her home. I would accompany her on the ten-hour bus trip the next day.

I have fond, almost fatherly memories of Yao Shu Ting from that trip. Without Tammy and the kids around she did even less talking than usual. I tried chatting for a little while, but it was easy to see we both preferred the silence of looking out the windows. At lunch, we ate our instant noodles squatting side by side in the dirt next to the bus. I am squat-challenged. Maintaining that position for a whole meal worked up an appetite almost faster than the incoming noodles could compensate for.

The farther we got from the city the poorer the roads got. And more mountainous. On one of the stops to add water for the brakes, I went inside the roadside store to find spicy peanuts or spicy dried tofu. Packaged pickled chicken feet caught my eye, and on a hunch I bought one for Yao Shu Ting. Had I had known how fast she’d gnaw it clean, I’d have bought her half a dozen. I sampled a bite when she offered it, but I’ve never been able to nibble those things without having uncomfortable visions of their previous life tramping a chicken yard. I was happier enjoying my gan daughter’s lip-smacking instead. I got pensive as I watched her, and thought about her life, trying to imagine what it must be like. I couldn’t. The dissimilarities between her and me at age twelve were too great. It was those gaps, more than her shyness, more than my standard, unnatural Mandarin and her Sichuan dialect, that hindered conversation. We were from different worlds.

She finished the foot and I offered my headphones for a listen. The flavor of the moment happened to be Bryan White, the Dixie Chicks, Colin Raye. In my youth, such a genre would not have been found in any music device in my vicinity. In fact, in 1980’s suburban Chicago I can recall hearing no answer to the question, “What kind of music do you like?” more often than I heard, “All kinds. Except country.”

Funnily enough, the first place I moved after marrying a girl from Pennsylvania was Texas. I had grown up traveling extensively every summer because my dad was a high school math teacher, but I’d never traveled south. I didn’t even have a frame of reference for a place like Texas. On our move down, we hadn’t even exited the southern end of the state in which I’d spent my entire life before Tammy and I started hearing a dialect of English I’d only ever heard on television. Once we hit Texas the culture shock was complete. I wouldn’t be that traumatized when we went to teach English in Taiwan three years later.

Texas seemed unaware that there were kinds of music other than country. Country music played in the mall, it psyched the stadium, it headlined the fair, it blared from every car. Or would have, had there been any cars. We had a car, but everything else on the road was a pickup truck. And, as we were the Yankee morons who had brought down a car without a working air conditioner, our windows were always open and we could hear everyone else’s music that much better. We had cassette tapes of non-country music, but they caused more rubbernecking than our rolled-down windows, or  melted in the heat. We left them home.

Amazingly, we adjusted. Culture shock wore off, my stereotypes faded, and Texas became home. And I’m fixin’ to tell y’all, it changed us more than we changed it, that’s for dang sure. That day on the bus with Yao Shu Ting, the country music I offered her had been put there by me. But now it was her turn to react for all the world like she was from 1980’s suburban Chicago. She took those headphones off in less than five seconds.

“No, wait, Shu Ting, try this next track. How about that?”

Her face politely grimaced a thanks but no thanks.

Maybe it was just foreign music in general she didn’t like. I switched genres. There went that theory. Her eyes lit up at a little-known group playing self-titled “astro rock.” She waved her hand furiously at me to stop, and that was the last I heard from her. She listened contentedly through both their albums until we arrived.

I may have lived seven years in Texas and have twang-appreciative kids of my own, but one unchanging truth had just been established: I would forever have at least one daughter who would never be a fan of country music. We got off the bus and I walked my gan daughter across the parking lot to her aunt. I passed her off with smiles and waves. And more than a little unease about what the future held for her.

I never saw her again.

We’ve never stopped trying to find her.