My baby done graduated

She was a scruffy little thing when they handed her to me. Fingers in mouth. Brushy black hair worn off in back from scrubbing her head back and forth on the crib mattress. Skinny legs kicking wildly below a little sleeveless purple-and-white striped number.

We first laid eyes on each other in a stuffy room in an office building 6,824 miles from Minneapolis. It was suffocatingly hot that summer and we were both sweaty. For one second, as I held my arms out to her and she looked at me for the first time, she screwed up her face to cry.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry,” I said in Chinese, desperate to soothe her. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to have so much fun. I promise you.”

She stared at me and listened, her face still twisted in fear and confusion. Then she took the fingers out of her mouth and gave me a huge smile, a smile that made her entire body wiggle.

Later that day, when we were alone in the hotel room, I laid her down on my stomach in her diaper. She stared at me with her deep dark eyes and wiggled and smiled. She took her fingers out of her mouth, stuck them back in. I played peek a boo and she laughed a throaty little chuckle of a laugh.

When I had to get up to go to the bathroom I put her in her crib and her dark, dark eyes followed me across the room.

In a restaurant a few days later, four waitresses took turns holding her. When they realized I spoke Chinese they beckoned me to a corner and, unsmiling, told me that I had to tell her something when she got older.

Tell her she was wanted, they said. Explain to her about the one-child policy. Tell her about us, here in this restaurant, and how we thought she was beautiful and funny. No matter what anyone ever says, don’t ever let her think she wasn’t wanted.

On the flight to Minneapolis she slept and stared out the window and sucked down bottle after bottle and wiggled her legs and laughed. The pilot gave her some plastic wings and she stuck them in her mouth.

6,824 miles later, at midnight, we landed.

There have been many miles since.

How many trips we have been on together, her riding shotgun, me driving. Through the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains and the White Mountains. Down south, hugging the Mississippi and then venturing east to the southern wilds of the Florida panhandle.

Driving west from Minneapolis, feeling the earth swell and rise beneath the car, all the way to Idaho and then heading north to the Canadian Rockies. Most recently down the Pacific Coast Highway in the rain and clouds, Big Sur in the mist, stopping to listen to the sea lions on the rocks.

Hundreds, thousands of miles. She is my road warrior daughter. Dozens of playlists masterminded by her: one perfect song after another. She long ago stopped sticking those two fingers in her mouth, but her dark, dark eyes are as observant as ever.

We play a game I think of as Sure. She points and asks, I answer.

Mom, can I have an elephant?


Mom, can we live there?


Mom, can I quit school and we’ll go on an around the world trip?


Once, a few years ago, we flew eastward, back over those same thousands of miles to the land she was born in. We hiked the Great Wall in 106 degree heat, ate dumplings, melted into the middle of crowds to cross the terrifying streets.

She weighed almost nothing in the beginning. She couldn’t sit up by herself and her  big brother and sister liked to haul her around like a floppy stuffed animal. When she was little her main goal in life was to make them laugh, and she was very good at that task.

She didn’t walk until she was almost two but once she did, she was an unstoppable force of nature. She used to throw herself at the car windows if we passed a playground. She zipped around the block on her trike or scooter or rollerblades. She would shriek like a tiny madwoman if anyone tried to keep her off the slide or the swings.

Eighteen years went by.

Now she’s asleep upstairs, having just gotten home from the all-night high school graduation party. Her purple cap and purple gown are crumpled on the dining room table. Her dog waits patiently for her to wake up. When she does, she will pet him and then drink a mug of strong black coffee.

Come the end of August she will be living 1463 miles away from me, when in all these years since I met her she has never been farther than a few blocks.

Once she didn’t exist. Then she was born. Then I flew a long way to meet her, and we came home to a world that was new because we were new to each other, just getting to know each other, figuring each other out.

What am I trying to say here? Nothing that isn’t a cliche. A cliche about how the day you meet your baby, time slows down inside but speeds up outside. How the years whirl by until the night comes when you’re sitting in a huge auditorium while someone at a microphone is calling out name after name, and your daughter steps across the stage, smiling and shaking hand after hand.

You applaud and smile but inside you’re remembering that very first moment, when she looked at you and almost cried, but didn’t.

I still have the journal I kept about her all those years ago, tucked in a cardboard box with the tiny purple striped outfit, her original passport, the first photo I ever saw of her.

Now I look at the journal and think, She wasn’t even born yet when you began this thing. Strange. But that’s how babies begin. How parenthood begins. How works of art begin. You dream about something that doesn’t yet exist.

Miles to go before we sleep.

From the archives, because it's graduation central around here.

Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self

Dear self,

This is the only photo I could find of you. You held an instamatic out in front of you, hoping somehow to capture your own face, and pressed the little black button. I remember exactly when you took that photo. You had just gotten out of the shower. You were wearing cut-offs and that blue workshirt you wore every day back then.

You wondered if maybe you could capture something in a photo that would tell you something you didn’t know about yourself.

Now I look at that photo and I think: You were on the verge. Of so much.

You don’t think of yourself as unhappy right now. You go to high school out in the country, you have friends, you belong to a bunch of things. You don’t think of yourself as lonely.

But in retrospect, you’re waiting and you don’t even know it. You’re waiting for the doors of your life to blow open, for the sky to lift high overhead.

What can I tell you now, from this long perspective of time?

You can let up some. You think you have to push yourself every day, that you have to maintain some high rigid standard, be ultra-disciplined, but you don’t. Why are you setting your alarm every morning for 4:45? So sleepy.

Then again, that discipline will come in handy years later, when you have three little kids –yes! you do end up with three kids, just like you wanted!– and you get up at four because it’s the only time you can write in silence.

So many things that you think matter so much right now do not, in the end, matter. Or they matter, but in a way that you’re too young to understand yet.

That one night you’re thinking about, when they took off and left you there? When you get to my age, instead of blaming yourself –too ugly, too boring, all my fault– you’ll shrug and think, it’s clear that whatever I was back then, I at least wasn’t mean.

All those times on the schoolbus, in school, walking the dirt roads past broken-down trailers, when you feel helpless in the face of others’ pain, will eventually be transformed into art. Even if you feel right now as if you’ll break apart from it, it will be worth it.

Most everything that you are going to live through will, in the end, be worth it.

It’s too late to go back and re-do things, but if I could, I’d tell you a few things that you’re too young to know:

When your grandmother and your father and your mother tell you not to change your plans, that the tickets are nonrefundable, that he knew how much you loved him, don’t listen to them. Go to your grandfather’s funeral, because when you don’t, you will forever regret it.

You don’t need to wash your hair every day.

Don’t listen when people tell you that love fades, that it becomes humdrum, ordinary, that this is the way it is for everyone. It’s not.

You are not ugly the way you fear you are.

Don’t be so afraid, out of self-consciousness, of trying things that it seems as if everyone around you already knows how to do. Skiing, for example. In two years you’re going to go to a college that has its own snow bowl; learn to ski.

Four years from now, when that boy you have the massive crush on comes to your room in Hepburn Hall with a bottle of wine and a bunch of roses, invite him in. Do not stand there in dumb shyness, your heart beating like a hummingbird’s, and thank him politely and watch his face fall and say goodnight and shut the door. Because that’s something else you’re going to regret forever.

When you’re afraid of something, tell someone.

When you need help, ask for it.

When your insides are whirling around and you feel as if you’re drowning, panicking and desperate, don’t put a calm smile on your face and walk around as if you’re fine.

There are lots of people who would love to help you.

There are lots of people who love you. You don’t know that yet, but you will.

In some ways, you’re going to live your life in reverse of most people your age. Awful things are going to happen to you when you’re young, and you’re going to feel much older than your friends. For many years your interior will not match your exterior.

But guess what? Time will go by, and your friends will catch up to you. Life catches up to everyone. The older you get the happier you get, the more rebellious, the less willing to suffer fools, to put up with bad behavior. You’re going to feel so free when you get older.

You are going to be so much happier when you’re older than you can believe possible right now. Most of that happiness will come when you let go of trying to come across a certain way, when you just let people see you for who you are.

It makes me sad that this is going to take you a long time to learn, and I wish I could change it for you, but I can’t.

So many years from the day you held that camera out and hoped this photo would reveal something you couldn’t explain, something you wanted so badly to know about yourself, you will look at it and feel this big sweep of love for that young girl, her whole life stretching out before her, as if she isn’t you.

But she is.



Poem of the Week, by Mary Karr

A Blessing from My Sixteen Years’ Son
– Mary Karr

I have this son who assembled inside me
during Hurricane Gloria. In a flash, he appeared,
in a heartbeat. Outside, pines toppled.

Phone lines snapped and hissed like cobras.
Inside, he was a raw pearl: microscopic, luminous.
Look at the muscled obelisk of him now

pawing through the icebox for more grapes.
Sixteen years and not a bone broken,
not a single stitch. By his age,

I was marked more ways, and small.
He’s a slouching six foot three,
with implausible blue eyes, which settle

on the pages of Emerson’s “Self Reliance”
with profound belligerence.
A girl with a navel ring

could make his cell phone go brr,
or an Afro’d boy leaning on a mop at Taco Bell —
creatures strange as dragons or eels.

Balanced on a kitchen stool, each gives counsel
arcane as any oracle’s. Bruce claims school
is harshing my mellow. Case longs to date

a tattooed girl, because he wants a woman
willing to do stuff she’ll regret.
They’ve come to lead my son

into his broadening spiral.
Someday soon, the tether
will snap. I birthed my own mom

into oblivion. The night my son smashed
the car fender, then rode home
in the rain-streaked cop car, he asked, Did you

and Dad screw up so much?
He’d let me tuck him in,
my grandmother’s wedding quilt

from 1912 drawn to his goateed chin. Don’t
blame us
, I said. You’re your own
idiot now
. At which he grinned.

The cop said the girl in the crimped Chevy
took it hard. He’d found my son
awkwardly holding her in the canted headlights,

where he’d draped his own coat
over her shaking shoulders. My fault,
he’d confessed right off.

Nice kid, said the cop.

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