Paul has been delving deeper into his life story as of late. Partly because I finally got it together enough to transfer his story from “out of my mouth” (his phrase for the paperless storytelling that sometimes happens in those dark and dreamy moments before sleep) and onto the printed page. And while I love “out of my mouth” stories, there is something solid and substantial about holding a story, with its heft and crackle and smells of ink, firmly in one’s hand.
We are a people of story. We need stories to learn, to grow, to make sense of the world around us. Stories connect us to our past, give us roots, a sense of place and permanency, fill us with resolve to spread our wings and seek new adventure. Stories give us hope.
No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place. – Maya Angelou
Children from hard places especially need story, need to tell and retell story in part to answer the big questions that comprise their past: Who am I? What happened to me? Is what happened to me my fault? What will happen to me now?
These life stories can be difficult because they contain such sadness and tragedy and loss. There are unanswered questions – unanswerable questions. Paul’s story, which is his own private story and only his to tell when he is ready, contains many such questions. There are huge gaps about which we know nothing. It’s a many-piece puzzle with no picture reference and no way of knowing how many pieces might be missing. It’s easy to want to fill in the gaps with wishful, loving platitudes “Your first mother and father loved you so much that…” or with what-might-have-beens or with outright untruths. But this is something we cannot do. We cannot lie or platitude or wish away those hard gaps.
I naturally use story in my counseling work (where it is sometimes called narrative therapy or metaphor therapy, which you really only need to know if you’re preparing for the board exam). My office is stuffed with folktales and fables and “Tell a Story” games and personal narratives littered on scraps of paper, complete with childish illustrations.
Sometimes I get calls or emails from teachers whose students have written such a story with a bit more…darkness…than they are used to seeing. One student with a hard, hard past, after months of games and metaphors and play both in my office and in family therapy, finally penned his story to paper. Penned it for a class essay project, which after reading the teacher quickly escorted to me.
The student entered my office warily, and when he saw the story on the table his eyes blazed and his arms crossed.
“You’re not in trouble,” I said. (They never are in trouble with the “upstairs Mrs. Thompson.” That role is completely out of my giftedness. They may have to engage in some natural consequences or “energy renewers” when they are with me, and I have been known to encourage students whose poor choices left havoc in their wake to get busy cleaning up said havoc, but never “in trouble”.)
He didn’t look convinced. “This is Powerful.” I looked him in the eye, placed my hand on the story. “Powerful.”
“It is?” He seemed to consider this. He knew full well that the story he’d written wasn’t “good” or “neat” or “lovely”, knew it wasn’t written with the only goal an A at the end, knew the language contained therein wasn’t much tolerated at this private Christian school. But powerful? Yes.
We sat at the table and read the story and acknowledged its pain and considered it in the objective sunlight streaming from my brilliant window and both knew something had changed, something had healed.
“It isn’t finished,” he said finally, with that twinkle in his eye I’d learned to recognize.
“No,” I agreed. “It isn’t finished.”
And he went on to write more of his story, and he is still writing, and now the stories reach beyond himself to others, to my own little guy, from healing his own hurt to understanding and empathizing with the hurt of those who’ve walked a similar path.
And so we help Paul tell his story with those same goals of understanding, healing, growing, with those same goals of hope. Patty Cogen, in Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child, recommends using the wording Big Change in the child’s life story to note those life altering losses and transitions surrounding first family, caregivers, orphanages, adoption, moves. So much out of their control. So many Big Changes.
Paul has questions. “But how did you know to find me MIS?” he asked one evening after pouring over the pictures of one such Big Change, the day we met, May 7, 2012.
So many thoughts whirled through my head. How had we known how to find him? How had our little family connected with this one particular little boy half a world away? International adoption laws and adoption agencies and missionaries and matching meetings that seem on the surface so random yet are anything but. “We prayed for a little boy and God used our adoption agency to help us find you,” I finally answered.
He considered this. “But how did God even talk?” he wondered. Then, brightening. “I know! In you’s heart.”
In my heart. Absolutely in my heart. That is where his story and my story connect, where his part one ends and part two begins, the day his name flashed across my email, the day I saw his pictures, the day I read what little I know of the first part of his story – joyfully and fiercely in my heart.
Kristi and her husband of 19 years stay busy loving, laughing and chauffeuring their teenage daughter (biological) and kindergarten son (home six months from Lesotho) around their Kentucky home. Kristi works part-time as an elementary school counselor (and as such knows parenting advice is easier said than done and that all of parenting is an on-your-knees-with-God proposition) and part-time as a writing instructor with the Institute of Children’s Literature (as an excuse to read really great books before anyone else) and any-other-spare-minute (none) writing children’s books. Since she “thinks through her fingers” she shares their adoption journey as a coping mechanism on her personal blog.