To Bend and Not Break
Willingly given, willingly taken, I was a newborn with thick, black hair and almond-shaped eyes. The comforting voice and heartbeat I knew were gone, replaced with foreign approximations. Adapting was surviving. I was shaped by my adopted family’s world. We loved church, we joked with sarcasm, we explored the wilderness. I adopted the identity of their “chosen” child. That was how I fit in to my family.
I fit in, but I didn’t blend in. A mixed-race Chinese girl in a rural field of milky whiteness, someone was bound to notice. The questions were usually kind in tone, curious in expression, and awkward at best. My parents were often flattered to answer, prone to oversharing and assuming the best. Of all the kids in our teeny, dairy-farming town, I was the only one whose place in my family required an explanation. I was bound to notice. No one assumed I fit.
It became my burden to prove that I did fit in. I reassured the awkward askers with heartwarming tales of my adoption. I satisfied the stranger’s idle curiosity about my “nationality” with a smile. When given a seat at the “good student desk”, I sat and kept my head in a book. Pegged for a hole in the math team, I contorted to fill the space. Inclined to lead but expected to follow, I learned to devalue my contributions. With every new relationship and each new phase of life, I adapted to be accepted.
Recalibrating, I lived a year in China trying to blend in. I became the long-lost daughter of a people whose culture was completely unfamiliar to me. I changed my hair and clothes, my posture and expression. If I did not speak, I could wander in a sea of thick, black hair and almond-shaped eyes and no one would notice. Still, bending did not equal belonging.
So,I returned to the wilderness and the towering evergreens that dance with the wind and bend under snowfall. Their flexibility enables beauty and resilience, showing their glory for ages because they can bend without breaking. With roots that drink deeply of life, they flourish. So I, too, root deeply in my source of love, growing in truth. I can belong whether or not I fit in or blend in. Without breaking myself, I can bend to connect with others. As I flex and flow, I find that adaptation unlocks reconciliation.
—Tiffany Lavon, McMinnville
I stood in the doorway of our apartment building’s first communal potluck, nervously anticipating my attempt at camaraderie with what I had calculated to be a total of approximately three thousand years of collective backgrounds, cultures, and unresolved baggage. A few months before, we had all moved into a new independent senior apartment building—all at the same time! While a few knew each other from their churches, the majority of us were strangers. To complicate matters, this was the most culturally and generationally diverse population I had ever lived among.
The previous few months of interaction had consisted of short, cordial encounters at the mailbox, accompanied by a polite concealing of mutual suspicion about “unknown” neighbors. As time went on, however, it became apparent to me that the diversity of viewpoints I was encountering in these and subsequent communal gatherings was presenting challenges to my current construct of reality. While I usually approached adult life situations with open-minded clarity and tolerance, I was finding this perceptual wall of seeming irreconcilables overwhelming. I succumbed for a while to a habit of mentally rolling my eyes in an adolescent dismissiveness of voiced attitudes such as “I just do what my doctor tells me to—it would be rude to question him,” or “the government always has our best interests at heart—we should just support them.”
I eventually realized that this reaction would simply close off any avenues of my exploration and understanding of another’s reality, which is so important to overcoming fears of our differences. I found myself trying to understand the effects of culture, generation, and aging on our viewpoints. The insights I garnered into the “how,” the “what,” and the “where we’ve been” of our lives, and their impact on our view of the world greatly widened my perspective and awareness.
Now, more than five years later, although it hasn’t solved all of our problems, I have a greater understanding of and compassion for the effort involved in adapting our “yesterdays” to today. I also came to realize that, had I remained in my initial eye-rolling approach, limiting my personal vision of possibility to the confines of a set of circumstances—as, sadly, many do—my glass would always appear half-empty. By adapting the circumstances to my committed vision instead, I create a glass that will not only be half-full, but more importantly, continually refillable.
—Gi Dian, Lake Oswego
Seven days after my second birthday, six months and one day after American medical researcher Jonas Salk announced on a national radio show that he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, my parents noticed that I kept falling while attempting to walk the hallway of our home. Soon my body was paralyzed by polio. Doctors said that I would never sit up. I soon did. The doctors then said I would never walk again.
Most of my body recovered rather quickly from the paralysis except for my right leg. I could learn to walk again by being braced. The brace surrounded my torso and extended from my armpits down my right leg to a shoe. My challenge was to adapt to a new way of walking. One day my parents were visiting friends who had a daughter about my age. They noticed that I was trying to walk by pushing her doll carriage. Soon after that visit, I sat in an office with my parents across the desk from a gentleman. Behind us were windows that opened onto a factory floor where glossy children’s tricycles, wagons, and other mobility toys were being manufactured. My parents persuaded this gentleman to build me a one-of-a-kind mobility device which would help me adapt to my new way of walking. A special carriage designed to affirm my masculinity was built. The body of the metal carriage was about 16 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 8 inches deep. It featured large rear wheels and smaller front wheels that swiveled to make steering easier. Mounted to the front of this carriage was a wooden cutout of a horse’s head. Underneath the carriage, weights were attached so I could lean on the handle as I walked and not be in danger of tipping over the carriage.
Fast-forward a few years, and I’m once again with my parents sitting across a desk from a gentleman. He was an authority figure in the public school system. Our city was blessed to have a separate school for “crippled” children. It was the expectation that I would attend that specialized school. My parents had a different idea. Mom and dad lobbied this public school official, asking that the public school system change and allow their “crippled” child to enroll. This gentleman agreed, the system adapted, and I attended.
—Rev. Gary Mccreith, Lakeview
Life has an arc. A person seems to be moving onward and upward as she encounters each of the stages of life, growing older, stronger, perhaps wiser, with each successful adaptation. The world seems to expand and life seems to get better as we mature. After numerous versions, the one I deal with now seems the most difficult yet. The arc of life seems to turn downward sometime between the ages of seventy and eighty when our bodies start going backward. We lose height, muscle mass, strength, and agility. We are getting old. We knew it would happen and we can adapt. However, people who have not yet become old seem to have trouble adjusting to us.
Today in America there are six times as many people eighty-five or older as there were sixty years ago. Psychologists and sociologists study us. Businesses make money operating retirement or assisted-living homes. Some businesses try to cater to our perceived needs. One-on-one interaction can be a challenge. People who wait on us in stores or restaurants or those who take care of us in a hospital call us “sweetie,” “dearie,” “honey,” “young man,” or “young woman.” We might know their names; some don’t bother to learn ours.
Recently, my husband and I—both eighty-five years old—visited a winery with our son and daughter-in-law for an outdoor tasting. My husband and I walked around holding hands, mostly because the ground was uneven and I have a tendency to fall, though I do like to hold his hand. The hand holding might—or might not—explain our experience as we prepared to leave at the end of the event.
A woman, maybe forty or fifty, walked up to us, stood close and told us we were “cute.” She repeated the word several times, looking right at us. I responded, “Puppies and kittens are ‘cute,’ children are ‘cute.’ I don’t think we are cute.” She didn’t smile or change her facial expression, just kept staring at us and repeating, “cute.” I felt awkward and wanted to leave. Perhaps she had too much wine to drink. Perhaps she thought she was being friendly and flattering. Perhaps we need another word: “negotiate.”
—Shirley Nelson, Florence
I hurt my body when I was younger. Not all at once, but over time. First my back, from construction and warehousing. Then my wrists, from typing. I heard, but did not comprehend, how these pains could turn into worse ones.
In graduate school, I experienced a spectrum of strong abuses. My body responded. My limbs flared, and I could not work. My neck cramped, and I could not leave home. My back seized, and I could not leave my bed. In time I accepted two things: I would permanently hurt, but I might hurt less with the right changes. I left my former workspace and all its unsustainable stressors. I sought ergonomic training and low-impact activities. I changed everything about my day. And I have not been stuck in bed for a year.
My body is still damaged. It will not recover to what it was even a short time ago. Some of my favorite activities are beyond my reach. But I adapted my habits and expectations, and now I can live.
We have badly hurt our planetary body. Not all at once, but over time. Now a million kinds of plants and animals cook and starve. Many fill with plastic when they eat and breathe. Pollutants touch every landscape, travel on every breeze, settle in every puddle and ocean.
We heard this would happen, but we did not comprehend how a few pressured species would turn into collapsed food chains and mass die-offs, how a few fractions of a degree would turn into flooded cities and croplands. We must adapt to this newly damaged body of ours, with its aching climate patterns and inflamed ecosystems. We can waste less: food, plastic, metal, energy. Eat more plants, fewer animals. Sustainably harvest everything we use. Learn which companies collapse ecosystems for profit and vigorously reject them. Fund science because we need recycling and energy, not because we fear foreign economies. Tell businesses what we expect, ecologically, from their products.
Some things will be beyond our reach, like vivid coral reefs, or quiver trees bunching their branches heavenward from desert soil. They are leaving us. As for golden toads on wet bark in cloud forests, or Bramble Cay melomys on their island in the Torres Strait, they have already gone. But if we adapt now, perhaps we, and at least a few of our beautiful neighbors, can live.
—Nathan Waugh, Philomath
Making Difficult Situations Worthwhile
There are times when it is imperative that one adapt and then there are others when adapting may result in becoming part of the problem. I have lived in Oregon for three and a half years now. I moved here to take on the role of chair in the Black Studies Department at Portland State University. The department is housed in the School of Gender, Race, and Nations and includes Black Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, Indigenous Nations Studies, and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies. It sounds like a great place to be as a scholar, but not if you are an African American woman. I found that out the hard way. I began to realize that the concerns other African American women in such spaces had written about and shared with me were true. We are the “other” who is already perceived and treated differently because of our status as African American and as women. It took a while for me to realize how power is acted out in an environment where social justice is both raced and gendered. I found that adapting to an environment where social justice means “social just us” is not easy for those who understand microaggressions not just in theory, but experience them in reality. Adaptability in such spaces is problematic because, if power is raced and gendered, then it is something that is perceived as natural or owned by those who have it. Power is something that makes those who have it uncomfortable when someone else wants or has it, especially when that someone is an African American woman. Being off-kilter and struggling to adapt in an environment where there is no one who looks like you, let alone thinks like you, and those who are there want to silence you, is difficult but not impossible. It means adapting, but not in a way where one loses one’s soul. Networks in safe spaces have been a saving grace for me. Finding organizations and people who have like-minded goals that I can interact with without the fear of being silenced by them has been a cause for celebration, support, and healing as I move out of my role as chair. Adapting to Portland and its liberal rhetoric has been hard, but finding those who do more than use catchphrases like “social justice” but who are nonetheless just makes even the most difficult situations worthwhile once you have adapted to your environment in the way only you can.
—Shirley A. Jackson, Beaverton
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