Where Is Home?

October 28, 2015

A couple nights ago, B and I watched this episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. It was on Ethiopia and we were excited to see many familiar scenes, yet also so many new ones — the city of Addis Ababa has changed so much in just three years! Not surprising, given it’s one of the fastest growing economies in the world. We loved seeing EthiopiaSkate featured in the show, as well as ZAAF, a high-end fashion brand of leather goods — both of whom I follow on Instagram.

Bourdain viewed his journey through the eyes of renowned chef, Marcus Samuelsson and Samuelsson’ wife Maya, who accompanied Bourdain to their homeland. Samuelson was born in Ethiopia but at the age of two was adopted, along with his sister, by a Swedish couple. He moved to the United States where at the age of 24, he became the youngest chef to ever receive three stars in the New York Times for his work at Aquavit. (He was also named “best chef in New York City” by the James Beard Foundation, won Top Chef Masters on TV, and cooked the first state dinner for President Obama.)

Maya Gate Haile, Samuelson’s wife, a model, was born in Ethiopia as well, and grew up in a small village until she left for Holland at the age of 12. She has her own interesting story, and the couple were ideal hosts for Bourdain.

The show was fun to watch, but also bittersweet. The theme of the episode — the question Bourdain kept asking and exploring — was: “Where is home?” For Marcus, home is Ethiopia, Sweden, and now the United States — Harlem, to be precise — and he describes the feeling of not being fully at home in any of them, but also feeling at home in all of them. Maya says the same, but although she’s lived around the world, it’s different; she remained in Ethiopia until she was a teenager, never left her birth family, and still speaks the language of her small village.

It all made me wonder: How will my daughters eventually answer the question, “where is home?” What losses will they feel the most? Will they feel any guilt (the way Samuellson does) about what their life has become, when they consider those they left behind? How will they take the different parts of the three countries they’ve inherited — Ethiopia, Canada, and the United States — and blend the cultures they experience in each together to form a unique identity?

I can relate in the smallest way to having more than one home country. After living in the U.S. for over 20 years now, it feels like home. And yet it doesn’t. Canada is home, and yet not completely anymore. It’s a strange feeling, uncomfortable sometimes, but I’ve come to be grateful for the discomfort and to forge my own identity, which is an amalgamation of so many factors — family, culture, beliefs, experiences.

My daughters will have to do the same, and their process will have much more loss and many more questions and mysteries than mine ever did. I’m glad there are people out there whose stories they can relate to. Sometimes I imagine the day when we all travel back to Ethiopia together again. I’m not sure how I’ll ever get myself to make that plane trip again, but I will. And I suspect it will be one of the most meaningful trips any of us will ever take.

I think you’ll enjoy the episode of Bourdain’s show. Beware, though: it will make you hungry. (Except when they chop off the sheep’s head…. you may want to look away for that part.)



Woman in Meeting

Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of men professionally. I like men and find them easier to work with than women in certain settings and situations. I’ve also been in a lot of meetings, and in those meetings I’ve frequently been either the only woman, or I’ve been in the minority. While I think I’m kind and sensitive, I can also be a take-charge, get-things-done kind of person. I prefer when people are upfront and clear; I don’t take disagreement personally; and I don’t mind confrontation as long as it’s respectful.

It didn’t take me long, however, to learn that I had to be careful about how I stated things in meetings. If I was as matter-of-fact or blunt as the men were, it usually wasn’t well received. I was interrupted or talked over way more than any man in the room, but if I spoke in a no-BS, tell-it-like-it-is manner, it wasn’t always perceived the way it was when the same thing came from a man. (Maybe because women remind men of their mothers and wives?)

All this may be why I laughed out loud when I read this article in The Washington Post last week about “famous quotes the way a woman would need to say them during a meeting.” Here’s a sample:

“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, if I could, I could just — I just really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be awful, you know? That’s just how it strikes me. I don’t know.”

“I have a dream today!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, I just had this idea — it’s probably crazy, but — look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here — I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, Mikhail, if I could? Didn’t mean to cut you off there. Can we agree that this wall maybe isn’t quite doing what it should be doing? Just looking at everything everyone’s been saying, it seems like we could consider removing it. Possibly. I don’t know, what does the room feel?”

Really, you’ve got to read the rest to get your week started with a good belly laugh.


Image: Pixabay


hyena by ffloukes at Pixabay

It’s common for children to have fears — of the dark, monsters under the bed, the sound of thunder, certain kinds of bugs. But my daughters’ greatest fear? Hyenas.

If you happen to forget that your children came from the other side of the globe, that’s the kind of thing that will remind you. In many parts of the world, there isn’t much separating people from their natural environment and that was the case for my daughters when they were little — hungry hyenas roamed around at night and their living situation didn’t offer the kind of protection most of us would consider adequate. Even before they could speak English, my girls would try to describe hyenas. Three years later and I think they finally trust that there are no hyenas here.

There are plenty of dogs, though, and they used to be terribly afraid of those, too. Of course, hyenas and dogs are a little similar looks-wise, and in Ethiopia, dogs are mostly feral. They roam villages and cities in packs and children are taught to be afraid of them as they would a wild animal. Which makes sense… rabies, anyone?

In this neighborhood everyone has a dog and over time, H and S have become much more comfortable with dogs — to the point where they now want one of their own. That’s a huge turn of events, friends. These are kids who would quite literally scramble up my leg in a panic anytime a dog appeared. Now, they’ll actually sometimes pat a dog. The biggest help with this has been exposure to dogs belonging to friends and family, but also just the experience of seeing dogs around. Their initial reaction to a larger dog bounding towards them is still fear, but then again, that’s my reaction, too.

Hyenas, though? I don’t think that instinctual fear is going anywhere. We watched a documentary together over the summer about a man who rescues hyenas in east Africa, and opened a sanctuary for them. It helped the girls to see hyenas as real animals and not simply as one-dimensional monsters, so that was good. Still, I expect their fear of hyenas will continue to live in their subconscious minds. And why wouldn’t it? I’m gratetful that at least they have no memories of anyone being attacked by one, as I do remember hearing about a child adopted from southern Ethiopia who had witnessed one of her parents be eaten by a lion. Try helping a child through that one. Hard to fathom.

Speaking of hyenas, here’s journalist’s encounter with the hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia, and the men there who feed them.

Image: Pixabay

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Internet Menagerie

October 19, 2015


Let’s get this week started with a trip around the web. As usual, it’s a random selection of stuff I found intriguing in some way and wanted to share with you. Would love to hear any of your own recent finds so feel free to take a moment and share them in the comments!

  • These are making me reminisce about amazing making cider donuts with Mags…
  • If you’re a fan of Henry David Thoreau, what do you think of this?
  • Confused about how Syria got to be such a mess? This helped me understand it better:

Image: Life of Pix



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Pull Up A Chair

October 16, 2015

Mike Wilson/Life of Pix

Happy Friday, friends.

It’s been a week and I need to seriously pull up a chair and relax. Maybe grab one of these Stone Walls — a little rum, apple cider, ginger… sounds like an ideal seasonal drink, don’t you think? Please join me!

Yesterday I spent five hours that I didn’t have in a car repair shop north of town only to drive home in a rental into which we weren’t able to get our kids’ car seats secured properly so they missed half the day of their homeschool academy today, and I’m still suffering from sticker shock about what the repair costs are going to be tomorrow — ugh. Did I mention we’re buying a new car soon? If only we could find the time to get out there and test drive some cars!

Anyway, things have been going too fast lately and I’m really hoping this weekend will offer the chance to slow down a bit and re-order some things. How about you? How have you been? I hope it’s a slow weekend for you. Any fun plans? My girls’ best buddies – also 7 year-old twins – are having a small birthday party on Sunday so maybe I’ll get to jump on a trampoline or eat too many cupcakes or something.

I’ll see you back here next week!

Image: Mike Wilson at Life of Pix



I’m a little obsessed with neuroscience. I was about to say this started when we were in the adoption process, as we began to learn about adoption-related trauma and its effects on the brain, but it goes back further than that. When I studied at York University in Toronto I took a course in neuropsychology and it was one of my favorite classes (with developmental psychology not far behind).

Some recent neuroscience research (reported in Time, which took it from Barking Up the Wrong Tree) shows there are four habits that will make us the happiest. I’m always a little skeptical of such listicles, but this one rings pretty true.

  1. Regularly ask yourself: What am I grateful for?
  2. Label your negative feelings so you’re brain won’t be bothered.
  3. Make decisions — and “good enough” is good enough.
  4. Touch people more often — as in, give more and longer hugs.

I won’t repeat everything the article says, but here is some brief explanation:

Gratitude boosts the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. The research says you don’t even need to find something you’re grateful for, you just have to search for it. Also, gratitude creates “positive feedback loops” in your relationships, which in turn creates a greater sense of well-being.

As for feelings, suppressing them doesn’t work. Instead, when you label an emotion, it helps reduce the emotion of it. Labeling is related to mindfulness and meditation, which have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and create higher levels of health and well-being.

Making decisions does the same thing. It puts your brain at rest, helps pull you out of negative routines and behaviors, and changes your perception. The key, though, according to the research isn’t making the “perfect” decision, but a “good enough” one. Perfectionism prevents decision-making and creates helplessness. Also, making decisions boosts pleasure.

Which brings us to the last one: touch. We desperately need it as human beings. The brain reacts to the lack of feeling loved the same way it does to physical pain. Relationships are the foundation of this, but touch is the icing on the cake. Touch releases oxytocin, among other neurotransmitters, and even things like handshakes and sitting close to someone can make a difference. Of course, with the people you’re closest to, long hugs are the best of all — they increase serotonin and release oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the brain’s amygdala.

So, there you have it. Four things that boost happiness. What do you think? Which one resonates most with you?

Image: Life of Pix


An Adoption Paradox?

October 12, 2015

Birds by Rowan Heuvel

There’s a piece in The Atlantic about how adopted children have worse behavioral and academic outcomes in kindergarten and 1st grade than birth children do. This is according to some new research from the Institute for Family Studies by psychologist Nicholas Zill. The study was based on teachers’ measures of things like  angry outbursts, paying attention, eagerness to learn new things, and math and reading tests.

The article calls it a “paradox” because as a group, adoptive parents tend to be wealthier, better educated, and put more effort into raising their kids (as measured by things like eating family meals together, providing children with books, and getting involved in their schools, etc.). Research has shown that parents like this tend to raise children who generally do better at school. But not so for adoptive families, according to this study.

I’m not sure I buy it, entirely. I’m in a lot of adoption groups and I read time and time again how so many of their children excel in school. But, of course, that’s anecdotal. I think the real problem with this study is that they only looked at kindergarteners and 1st graders. Would they see anything different if they looked at 5th and 6th or 11th and 12th graders? They might, because younger adopted children may be dealing more acutely with issues related to attachment and trauma. I was glad to see the article address this a little bit:

One clue might be attachment theory, which holds that a strong bond with at least one nurturing adult—usually the mother—is essential to a child thriving. That adult can be the adoptive parent, but the adoption itself might mean that the bond with the birth parent was disrupted or never formed, Zill writes. In the worst cases, these children might have experienced a traumatic event prior to their adoption. Early trauma can affect the parts of the brain that control mood and learning.

Infants and toddlers with a so-called “disorganized attachment” to their earliest caregivers—those who feel frightened of or dissociated from their parents—are more psychologically vulnerable later in life. Among other things, they have more problems regulating their emotions and managing conflicts without resorting to hostility. Parents who create disorganized attachment with their kids might be the sorts of parents who get their kids taken away and adopted out.

True. But even children who had strong attachment to first/birth families and then develop strong attachments to second/adoptive families have experienced trauma, which majorly affects those parts of the brain dealing with emotion, self-control, attention, learning, memory, etc. And adopted children are more likely to come from backgrounds where they’ve had any range and level of traumatic events that affect development, such as exposure to alcohol and drugs in the womb, extreme poverty, malnutrition, neglect, abandonment, abuse, etc.

Secure and deep attachment between children and their adoptive parents is essential for healing, but also takes time and can be fragile. The amount of time a kindergartener or 1st grader has spent with a new family is only five or six years at most — often less. And depending on how trauma has affected a particular child, he or she may not behave in a school setting the same way a non-adopted child does.

I hope this article doesn’t add to the stigma of adoptive children, or dissuade adults from considering adoption. Instead, maybe it will help both parents and teachers be more aware of the hurdles adoptive children have to overcome and to approach them in creative and compassionate ways to help them heal, learn, and excel.

Image: unsplash



Three Years!

October 9, 2015

B, H and S

Three years ago this weekend we stepped off a jumbo jet at Dulles Washington airport as a family of four. Remembering that moment still brings feelings of relief and gratitude. We had made it! And the adventure was just beginning.

I was watching videos and looking at photos of H and S recently from those early days and I can’t believe how little they were. They’ve changed so much! I know that’s what kids do, but it’s still weird when you notice that it’s actually happening to your kids. And it makes me wistful. I just want to bottle up those moments, those adorable little voices speaking broken English, those little bodies I could still carry around and up the stairs. Sigh.

Three years in and I still feel like the luckiest mom on the planet to have landed these two habishas. I’m so proud of how far they’ve come, and of how brave, resilient, and receptive they are. These two are characters. I love that they’re so strongly their own people already. They’re funny and fun, creative and bright. They challenge me to be a better and more loving person every day.  They’re truly the lights of my life.

I also have a deeper understanding of how parenting is one of those always-evolving, ever-mysterious things that you can never figure out perfectly, and that in our case we will always be dealing with extra parenting layers, on top of “regular” parenting challenges… related to adoption, being a transracial family, and the “twin dynamic.” But that’s also what makes our family unique and wonderful and I wouldn’t change a thing. Except for maybe the sleep. I still need more sleep!

We celebrate our “coming home day” anniversary by doing something special as a family and going out for Ethiopian food. We happened to score some free tickets to Chesapeake Shakespeare Company‘s “Much Ado About Nothing” tomorrow so we’re excited to get dressed up and see what the girls think of their first Shakespearean experience.

I don’t know where this week went. I had every intention of posting something mid-week and suddenly it was Friday. I hope you have a slow and lovely weekend!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul



Children Playing

I’ve written before about how many northern European countries don’t push academics for young children. Instead, playing and time outside are considered more important. Here’s another piece, this one in The Atlantic, about kindergarteners in Finland, that discusses the same thing. The writer, Tim Walker, went to Finland to find out more about why they don’t have children doing work sheets, or spending much time learning to read. Among others, he spoke to staff at a preschool, who told him why play is central to learning in young kids:

When children play, Osei Ntiamoah continued, they’re developing their language, math, and social-interaction skills. A recent research summary “The Power of Play” supports her findings: “In the short and long term, play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development…When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn,” the researcher concluded.

Osei Ntiamoah’s colleagues all seemed to share her enthusiasm for play-based learning, as did the school’s director, Maarit Reinikka: “It’s not a natural way for a child to learn when the teacher says, ‘Take this pencil and sit still.’” The school’s kindergarten educators have their students engage in desk work—like handwriting—just one day a week. Reinikka, who directs several preschools in Kuopio, assured me that kindergartners throughout Finland—like the ones at Niirala Preschool—are rarely sitting down to complete traditional paper-and-pencil exercises.

Walker also learned that “joy” is a central tenant to the Finns when it comes to learning:

The word “joy” caught me off guard—I’m certainly not used to hearing the word in conversations about education in America, where I received my training and taught for several years. But Holappa, detecting my surprise, reiterated that the country’s early-childhood education program indeed places a heavy emphasis on “joy,” which along with play is explicitly written into the curriculum as a learning concept. “There’s an old Finnish saying,” Holappa said. “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”

Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily. That’s worth contemplating.

I can certainly see this in my own children, even though they’re now older than kindergarteners. They learn much better when they’re enjoying and interested in what they’re doing. And they always play-act what they learn and learn from what they play. They also have a natural desire to be outside exploring and moving around.

I’m not sure when the philosophy of educating young children began to change in North America. I didn’t attend kindergarten myself — it was optional back then and when offered was definitely more of a play-based program. But that was a long time ago, of course. Now there seems to be pressure for preschoolers to be working on reading or pre-reading skills and on other academic skills. I’ve spoken to parents who feel anxious that their three or four year-olds might be behind their peers, and I’ve met other parents whose three year-olds are in all-day programs that look a lot like school.

I think one of the big problems is that American adults, including those in the early education field, don’t understand the benefits of play, creativity, and movement for young children’s development, including their future academic success. If parents understood this, they’d probably make different choices for their kids, and be less stressed out.

It will definitely be interesting to see how these different educational approaches play out in the lives of children in the years to come.

Image: by OmarMedinaRD at pixabay

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Screen Shot Unplugged Nation

Friends, our television episode aired last week! I wanted to give everybody a heads up, but the production company forgot to let us know in advance and since we don’t have a TV, we watch the episodes (well, those that aren’t locked behind a cable key) via our computer after they’ve aired.

Last week I was standing outside our house when a neighbor went by and said, “Hey, I saw your show!” And I actually said, “What show??” … so far was it from my mind. Then B and I stayed up way too late that night and watched it. It was fun to see how the episode turned out, but a few things to keep in mind if you watch it…

This is reality TV… which means that what you see is not always how it was. Plus, it was an entire week of footage reduced to 48 minutes (or whatever it is without the commercials). There were things we were pretty sure would be in there and weren’t; and things we hoped wouldn’t show up and did (like the shutter on our house that broke a few days before they came to film).

I do want the interwebs to know that my husband has been fishing before and actually has very good balance. (And he wants everyone to know that he really didn’t swear in front of the kids.) Also, I wasn’t obsessed with room sizes despite what it seems, and our children didn’t need a break from playing computer games and watching TV since they don’t do much of either at home. But the Billy goat escaping was true, and his name really was “Rambutt.”

Did I mention it was hard to watch myself on TV?

But I remain really glad we did this. We wanted it to be a fun memory-making experience for our family and to learn something about off-grid living and about ourselves, and we did all that. And now we have the show to look back at and remember… and laugh at a few things, of course.

Alrighty, here it is. Let me know what you think!