Thursday, February 4, 2016

Shame Cupcakes

I work for a very nice corporate client who was celebrating a recent business success. To mark the occasion, they created a lovely spread of cupcakes in the employee cafeteria. I was on campus covering other stories, and I wanted to get some photos of the event. And then I got sidetracked into an afternoon’s worth of ruminations on shame, joy and how hard women can be on themselves.

I saw a woman approach the table and take two cupcakes. I asked: “Would you mind posing for me by the ‘Congratulations!’ poster, looking happy and holding your cupcakes?” She looked at me aghast, as if I’d asked her to remove several items of clothing and lay herself out on the catering table. “No!” she said, scurrying away.

Undaunted, I wandered into the cafeteria, noticing a woman who had just returned with a plate of the cupcakes for her friends. As she doled them out, I approached: “Ladies, would you mind holding up your cupcakes and smiling for me?” Again with the quick and horrified refusals. Sensing my dismay, one of the women had a suggestion for me. “If you want a picture, go to that table,” she said, pointing at a five-top of guys about 20 feet away. “I bet they’ll let you.”

And lo, it came to pass. The men happily hoisted their treats and smiled obligingly into the camera. They looked as though they were generally happy fellows, possibly extra happy about getting a free cupcake at work. I got the sense that more than one of them might help himself to seconds, if he felt so inclined. If their lips turned blue from the lurid frosting, I doubted they'd care. Cupcakes were happy food, and they were happy about having them. And that was clearly as much thought as they’d given to the entire matter.

I looked back at the table of women, none of whom was willing to have photographic evidence that she had ever, ever eaten a cupcake. Their treats were not going to taste very good. It might as well have been frosting-covered mud pies those gals were wolfing down. And if they wanted a second cupcake, they’d have to sneak down when no one was in the cafeteria, and eat it all in one bite. At least no would have a picture of them doing it, thank God.

I write a lot about food. I write about trending ethnic cuisines and demographic shifts in snacking and what spicy condiment is about to knock Sriracha off its throne. I write about the importance of probiotics to create a happy climate for gut bacteria, the role of fiber in avoiding blood sugar spikes, and why just about everyone needs more magnesium in their diet. But I never write about joy, and I think it’s time I do.

It’s okay to eat food. It’s okay to let others see you eating food. And it’s even okay to eat a cupcake, as long as you savor and delight in every single morsel. If you end up with blue lips and a three o’clock headache, so what. I am not sure where we women lost track of this, but it’s time to reclaim the simple, goofy attitude of the guys at that table: Oh boy, free cupcakes. Don’t mind if I do.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

And now the mitten is frozen solid ...

Whenever I am stuck in an interminable line at the DMV or trapped in delayed airplane, I tell myself one thing to make myself calm down: at least you aren't doing this very same activity with a two-year-old.

The recent cold snap (and really, isn't it a bit more than a snap, more like a cold compound fracture?) has me sending some beams of comfort to all the parents out there who are, this very minute, trying to put a snowsuit on a back-arching toddler, preparatory to a brisk trot in subzero temps to the just-as-cold car.

Then I remembered my post about the millionth mitten, and thought I'd revisit it here.


The Millionth Mitten

I was leaning back on the one bench they’ve provided at my newly renovated Y, grateful for an unwobbly place to switch out my shoes, and content to watch the passing show. Mid-mornings have a unique flavor at a health club in early February – the stalwart elderly, proud to be out the house, the new-resolution types who are clogging up the parking lots and forever turning the wrong direction in yoga class, and, always, the mommies.

I see the mommies trudging along in the parking lot, holding one child in arms while commanding the second to grab her leg and not let go. I see them in the bathroom, having long conversations about how yes, the toilet is loud, but no, it will not swallow you up, just go, please. Mostly I see them fighting the good fight in the Battle of the Mittens, insisting that it’s cold outside, we need to bundle up, just stick your arm out and Mommy will do the rest.

This particular day, as I sat on my bench, the mother next to me had already undergone a couple skirmishes and a full-scale retreat, and she had only gotten as far as boots and coat. From the corner of my eye, I noted a children's hat that looked very itchy, and featured big ear flaps, and I felt for her. Minnesota parents are a noble lot, nowhere more clearly evidenced than by their ability to bundle up, debundle and rebundle their progeny several times a day for six months of winter (or is it nine?). By January, it starts to get wearing, and by February, it’s positively exhausting. Back in my Mitten War days, I used to think of all those California parents, and their easy lot in life. By March, I’d come to truly despise them. How hard is it to be a good mommy in California?  “Be sure your flip flops coordinate with your sunglasses, dear!” Ha.

I remember that gloomy mid-March evening, years back, when I finally lost it. I only had two children, but two, by my reckoning that evening, was feeling like Two Too Many. I sat at the kitchen table, trying to unsnarl the knot from a wet pair of pink Sorels, and I let it rip: “They will NEVER grow up!  These children will stay little forever, just to Spite Me!” My daughters, ages six and three, stopped their argument about whether brown hair was prettier than yellow hair, and stared at me with wide eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not really feeling very sorry at all. “I just think the winter is getting to me.” They gave me the fish-eye for a bit and then resumed their discussion with vigor. Stupid Mommy. How could winter be so hard? There was sledding and there were snowmen and maybe, if they were lucky, they might even live long enough to see a Snow Day declared in Minnesota.

I thought of that night as I sat on the bench at the Y and watched the exasperated and exhausted mother struggle with the mittens, one more time. It’s never just one mitten that causes a Minnesota parent to go over the deep end. It’s the parade of mittens, the unending string of them, culminating in the Millionth Mitten, the one that leaves you screaming nonsense about how your children will never grow up, just to spite you.

In a few weeks, my girls will be celebrating their 17th and 14thbirthdays, one day apart and half a world away from each other. They put their own mittens on now, or usually don’t, and they need me for very little these days. I don’t have enough distance on those early years, at least not yet, to say that I wish I could go back to the Winterwear Wars. And I knew enough to keep my mouth shut around that young mother. She didn’t need to hear any advice from me, or accept my admonition to Cherish Each Moment. She just needed to get the damn mitten on and get home before naptime.

So I stayed quiet, but I tried to help. I made a crazy face at her child, behind her back. It startled him so much that he allowed some genuine progress to be made. I pulled my lips back with my fingers and stuck out my tongue, and his boots slipped on. She never saw the shocked look on his face, because she was too busy hustling him out to the minivan. I’d given her the only gift I had to give that day – a crazy lady’s distraction to help her get on her way. Someday, maybe she’ll do the same for some other poor soul, sitting on a bench at the Y.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The last bake sale

“I’ve never known so many people to be concerned about my mental health as the year my daughter left for college,” a friend confided to me recently. “After a while, I started thinking that I probably should have a nervous breakdown, because it seemed as though people were expecting it.”

I’m losing my job next August, that full-time mom-on-patrol stint that’s been a significant part of my adult life. I’ve moved from not being able to safely leave a room occupied by a conscious child (“Was that crash on Spongebob or in the dining room?”) to facing an autumn when both of them are in college.

Of course, it’s not exactly a “My work here is done” situation, clear to anyone who deals with the enormous emotional swells of older kids. “The bigger they are, they bigger they fuck up,” a straight-talking mom at the Catholic grade school once told me. True that, sister. But it is a year that’s marked with many “lasts” of my mom gig, and I’m beginning to notice.

I have laid down firm household rules about this topic. I’ve watched too many friends drive themselves crazy in this last year not to be aware of the warning signs. My vigilance began before school had officially started. The senior-to-be was nursing a late August cold, and I suggested she stay home on day one: no one really needs to go to school on the first day, anyway, I reasoned. After a mighty nose-blow, she looked up at me pleadingly and said, “But mom, it will be my last first day.

“And that shit ends here,” I declared, realizing that we would be tying ourselves into a group knot if we allowed every single moment to be declared “The last Tuesday, October 3 ever.”

Re: Re: Re: yourself, toots
After we banned talk of “the lasts,” I discovered some secret treasures. After receiving an email message with the subject line: “URGENT: cupcakes needed for dance concert fundraiser,” I dutifully turned the oven to 350 degrees and began to whip up a dessert. But I hummed happily at the thought that I was closing in on my last bake sale ever. The night of the concert, I found the Mommy in Charge and went through the ritual gratitude and inevitable instructions: “Don’t put it in that corner. That’s where we’re putting the items with sprinkles.” I walked away with a lighter load, and not just from the brownie dropoff. I was reaching the end of the time when some Martha Stewart wanna-be could offer me remedial instructions in brownie placement, napkin fluffing, or any of the countless other topics I’ve taken in, lips drawn upward and stomach clenched.

And Mommy Emails! I realized. They were coming to a blessed death, too. Before the next committee meeting on whatever it is I go to committee meetings for, as I scanned the slew of “Re: Re: Re: Re: Tonight’s meeting” messages, I realized I would soon be able to absent myself from the land of Reply All Nitwits, too. Another “plus” went in the “no kids in school” column.

Three leaves and a rock
I thought back to elementary school. Not much to regret there, either. No more summers spent worrying over whether my child would be placed in the class with the functional alcoholic and the baker’s dozen of Mean Girls, or the room with the certified sadist and the pack of stick-wielding, uncontrollable boys. No more notes demanding three fall leaves and a rock, to be delivered with a jar a decoupage by 7:30 the next morning. No more middle-of-the night three-panel posterboard runs for the ruined Science Fair project. No Science Fairs, oh dear Jesus, no more Science Fairs.

I reached an apex of appreciation after hosting a cast party for the fall play. During the day, I had fielded phone calls from earnest parents who wanted a complete run-down of my security plans, with blueprints, if possible. I was sorely tempted to answer: “Just a minute, let me put down my loaded gun and light a cigarette before I think of an answer.” It was one of those nights that was doomed from the start, because by the end of the evening. I’d had to call for parental pick-ups of two drunken girls and their half-empty bottle of spiced rum. As I shut the door behind the last future Hazelden resident, it dawned on me that it had been the sort of night that made a person glad to be nearing retirement age.

Good luck, girls
Put your hand in a bucket of water, pull it out, and see how irreplaceable you are. My place will be taken by women made of sterner stuff than me. Standing right behind me is a long line of fresh-faced mommies, lined up in alphabetical order and ready to “reply all” to every email, whip up sprinkle-laden snacks, and host the best-darn room parties ever. They have shapely figures, clean aprons, and the ability to sniff out spiced rum at sixty paces. Youth, and stupidity, are on their side. Good luck, girls. I wish you all the best at that next bake sale, and let me know if you ever need to borrow my Bundt pan. God knows I won’t be using it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Five years, one week, a couple of lifetimes

I took a client out to lunch yesterday, stopping by to see her agency's swell new digs downtown, and happy to troop through the skyway system with a gal who clearly knew how to navigate Macy's in a Christmas-crowded flash. Stepping into the IDS tower, we heard a kids' choir earnestly yelping away on carols, while proud grannies raised phones for snapshots, and office workers raised the decibel level of their conversations, just a bit. "Wait a minute," I thought, "I've been here, I've done this before -- but when?"  Today I dug through a (virtual) dusty stack of posts and found this keepsake of a wonderful day, five years and one week ago.


The Extraordinary Ordinary

I think the magic started with the Cinderella-shoe, strangers-on-an-escalator moment at the IDS Center, but there was so much about that day that was purely extraordinary-ordinary. We look back now and say that it was a “great day,” but it wasn’t even close to being a full 24 hours of something special – more like five hours and change. It was just enough, though -- not only to make us happy at the moment, but to turn itself into a snow globe memory that we’ve been picking up more and more in this current, very different, holiday season.

The particulars: December 10, 2010. Emma had a performance with the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony, to be held over the lunch hour at the IDS Center downtown. With the sort of what-the-heck laxness that my children will probably use as Exhibit A of my poor parenting choices when they’re older, I told Mary Katherine that she could skip school in order to hear her sister play. We bundled ourselves and the cello into my Beetle, no small feat, and I managed to get us to the right spot downtown.

Everyone in our little group was carrying something – Santa hat, purse, cello, music stand.  It's understandable that, as we arrived at the escalator to part ways with Emma, who was heading to a basement-level green room, that she had already begun to descend before Mary Katherine realized she was still holding the black heels that Emma needed for the performance. “Emma, your shoes!” she called out, and we saw a swivel from that dark, shiny head, as she considered how to get back to us. The escalator was thickly populated with lunch-hour-ers, and it was impossible to turn back. 

And then our heroes arrived. Two young men, just stepping on to the escalator themselves, turned back at the sound of Mary’s cry, and reached out their hands in unison. “Toss ‘em here; we’ll get them to her,” one of them said. Mary lobbed one shoe into each outstretched hand. They arrived at the bottom and dutifully turned the shoes over to the lovely young woman, dressed all in black, standing patiently beside her cello. “Here you go, Cinderella,” one of them said, and they headed off without another word.

During the performance, Mary Katherine and I sat on a balcony and looked down at the orchestra  We were cozy on the floor, flattening our cheeks against the acrylic guard, feeling the sound drift up. Afterwards, with the cello safely stowed back in the car, we tooled around Macy’s, trying on hats, squirting each other with perfume and wandering happily, and aimlessly, from department to department. I was able to make my favorite parenting statement of all time: “Take your time; we aren’t in any hurry.”

Then we ended up on the seventh floor, waiting to see the Great Man. They were the oldest kids in the Santa Line, and by several years. And because it was a weekday afternoon, they were the only kids who could see over the railing, write their names in cursive, or take themselves to the bathroom. I had told my girls I wouldn’t buy them lunch unless they sat on Santa’s lap. “Have you been good?” he asked, a bit ironically, and I held back the urge to try a full Bette Davis retort: “Santa, you have no idea.”

 They’d done what I asked, so I bought them lunch at the Sky Room. We sat together at a small table, looking out at a snowstorm brewing over the late afternoon skyline. And we laughed together, over nothing, just happy to be together and to have no agenda, schedule, tournament, rehearsal or competition to attend, just this once. After Emma had written all over her cup, and the bus boy had been truly terrorized by our loud hoots, we gathered up our things and found the elevator to the first floor. A quick stop at Candyland for ride-home treats, and we headed home.  

And that’s it. Those were small things we did that day, not momentous ones. We attended a performance, sat on Santa’s lap and laughed together over a meal. But one year later, it seems that the day is still sending us a clear, strong signal, reminding us that we really do matter to one another, and that we have a bond which time, distance and circumstance can’t break. 

 For many families, their traditions seem rooted in the rigid belief that if anything is ever allowed to vary from the approved script, everything will fall apart.  If all my kids remember of our traditions is that we had a lot of fun one December day in the Sky Room, watching the snow as it fell over the city, that’s good enough for me.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Still a secret

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and I pulled out my mom's "secret" recipe today.  Thought it might be a good time to revisit my in-depth expose of three years ago.


Secret Recipe

Those aren't tears that I spilled on the recipe. It's just Karo syrup.

My mother lacked for many things in her life, especially material ones, but self confidence was never among them. Robust self-regard was as natural as breathing for Katherine Clifford Kendrick. She held firm convictions about the star quality of her solo at the St. Gregory Church Mothers’ Club Variety Show (proffering a clipping from the local paper whenever the occasion arose, as it often seemed to). Decades after the last bite of chicken a la king had been eaten, she delighted in remembering her “Three Coins in the Fountain” centerpiece for the annual Ladies’ Guild Luncheon. (She had used Madame Alexander dolls with little coins glued to their palms, thanks for asking.)

It only made sense that, as she would be the first to tell you, she was a marvelous cook. She would describe the nuances of the giant pieces of carrot in her Irish stew, sniffing at those chumps who offered finely chopped carrots chips to their families. Because she hated mustard (to ask her about it was to receive a wee bit more info than was really pertinent to the question at hand), she insisted on using yellow food coloring in her potato salad. I believed for years that adding yellow food coloring to any recipe immediately elevated it to the status of “gourmet.”

She swore by her pies. They weren’t just good, they were unique. No one could create a strawberry like hers. “Myyyyy strawberry pie” was the leadoff of the story, as if she and the pastry had been romantically outed in Jerry Berger’s column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her pecan version, she told anyone who was still listening, was from "My Secret No-Fail Pecan Pie Recipe.” Once she'd finished a lengthy discussion of its secret nature, she would write out the recipe for a friend, using her best Palmer method penmanship. Some secret.

When you raise a child in this way, several things can happen. In my case, it was a strong veer in the opposite direction. I decided to shut down the p.r. firm and live a life without press clippings or superlatives. I function under few delusions about the superiority of my talent, my decorating skill or my cooking prowess. I long ago decided that the only thing that matters in motherhood is Showing Up, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for 17 years. So far, the reviews have been adequate.

So, when the great Thanksgiving Teenaged Cook-Off was being planned at our house this past week (Three adults, 11 kids aged 21-and-under), and someone asked for pie, preferably one that featured pecans, I volunteered. Hey, I had a secret recipe. And it could not fail.

I will admit that I first turned to alcohol.

For the crust, that is. I used Christopher Kimball’s famed vodka pie crust recipe.  And then, crust in place, I turned to my mother’s “no fail” promise and began to mix the super-secret ingredients. Sugar. Eggs. Vanilla. When I reached into the cupboard for the dark Karo corn syrup, I’ll admit I was already a little bit suspicious. Nothing I’d been doing so far had struck me as very foolproof, or very stealthy. So I read the pecan pie recipe on the back of the blue bottle. Each ingredient matched up exactly with the one from my recipe, except – There! There it was! --  she called for one teaspoon of lemon juice, and those corporate tools at the Karo corporation did not. 

A teaspoon of lemon juice?  That’s the only thing standing between me and imminent pie failure?

Oh mom.

I made the pie, but with trepidation.  I had unmasked her secret, or lack thereof.  As it baked (60 minutes at 350 degrees, when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, you’re done), I thought about how someone could copy a recipe from the back of a bottle, add a teaspoon of lemon juice, and then somehow convince herself, over the years,  that she had created something that deserved its own Trophy Case in the Pie Hall of Fame. 

That was my mother, a woman who convinced herself more than she ever swayed anyone else, but who remained unfailingly upbeat. In truth, her potato salad was always watery, no matter how garishly yellow it was. And her Irish Stew required another ten minutes of work with the table knife, just to chop up all those oversized carrots.

The pie turned out fine. The recipe page went back in my cookbook folder. I smiled to picture some grandkid getting hold of it one day, thinking she really had a priceless secret recipe from the past.

Just don’t read the back of the Karo bottle, kid. It will break your heart.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

I don't do that anymore

I got my first job when I was 16 years old, and I haven't stopped working since. I’ve never had to wash dishes, wait tables or clean bathrooms for a living, and for that I’m grateful, because I'm not that good at cleaning and my sense of balance is awful, so I would miss spots and drop things, surely. I started working in the olden times—when, with several scholarships and a smidgen of luck, I was able to pay for my own college education. And I did it by working at, get this, the local public library.

After graduation, I taught freshman English at an all-girls’ Catholic high school, was an editor at an ag services publisher, and then turned my sparkling eyes to the low-pay, high-stress world of professional copywriting. I worked at a long list of agencies – direct marketing, advertising and a couple in that shadowy realm called “performance improvement.”

I worked at places that had angry partners, disgruntled employees and a complete lack of creative inspiration. I’ve been locked down in dingy conference rooms while the VP of the moment (a guy who looked like Fred Flinstone, wearing a Miami Vice blazer) told us why the American Express Gold Card was man’s greatest creation, and how we need to come up with something equally as good for the crappy HMO we were pitching.

I moved up to bigger conference rooms at different agencies, with people who were dressed more nicely, but I was still subjected to more lengthy lock-downs at “kickoff meetings,” where I was harangued by more suits, who demanded brilliant ideas to help that pillar of American industry, General Motors, sell more car and trucks. I’ve sat, pantyhose cutting off my circulation and big earrings tugging at my earlobes, while some former college football star accessed the deepest regions of his concussed brain all over the nearest flipchart page with a dried-out, de-scented Mr. Sketch marker.

Because I was usually the lowest-ranking female, often the only female, in the room, it was my job to transfer the ex-jock’s finished sheets to a clear spot on the rapidly filling wall, and to pretend to transcribe his notes, with great interest. Feigning enthusiasm used to be a big part of my day-to-day job. “Aren’t you excited about this Chevy pitch?! Are you ready to get to work??!” some jugheaded state-school grad would enthuse at me, and I would be expected to pull a credible joy-face while considering the prospect of pounding the Macintosh keyboard late into the night, entering the Big Ideas of our “program.”

There are a lot of things I don’t do anymore, and posting someone else’s flip chart pages on a bare wall is, thank God, one of them. Expressing unbridled going-to-Disney-World level enthusiasm over work assignments is another. These days, I’m a fixer, and fixers aren’t usually required to be enthusiastic, just effective. In my role as a freelancer, I’m no longer another cow in the barnyard stall. I’m much more the no-strings busy-bee, cross-pollinating from project to project, agency to agency. I see who always starts their meetings on time, who is afraid of impending layoffs and, vitally, who serves the nicest complimentary beverages.

Freelancers are treated differently than regular employees. No one ever calls me in when there's happy client, a functioning team, and plenty of time to meet the deadline. They call me when someone forgot something important, when the client screamed at everyone during the weekly review call, and when no one has any idea how this damn thing will ever get done. I often pick up the faint traces of a sniffle when someone calls on Thursday night (prime time for freelancer booty calls) to ask, weakly, “Are you available for a quick-turn project?”

And I like it, I like it a lot. I like the flitting, and I like the fixing, and I like doing quality work for places and people and topics that can only be described as “varied.”

That’s why a couple recent unpleasantnesses have reminded me of how generally smooth my freelance path has been. The first bump in my road was in a meeting that would have been unremarkable, except for the presence of man who clearly had fallen in love with the sound of his own voice the day he hit puberty, and has been unable to shut up ever since.

I was the one new person in the room, so he decided to tell me everything that had happened on this account since the beginning of time. And I get it, I really do, that everyone thinks their own product is very complicated and involved. I’ve been in meetings where people who make pens feel the need to begin by describing how ancient Egyptians used ink ... and then go on from there. This particular day, I was taking notes and paying attention, but then I noticed that this guy had Become Displeased. “I can’t tell if you understand me, because you keep frowning at me,” he growled. I looked around the room. The other man in the room wore a serious, paying-attention look. The other two women were baring their teeth in rictus smiles. Aaaah, this is a place where the girls need to grin like chimps, I realized.

“I’m paying attention,” I told him. He continue his narration, then stopped for a breath. “Do you like doing this? Are you excited about this?” he barked. I wondered, dimly, when the last time had been that a smile-demanding suit had asked me this question. A very long time ago, I realized. “Yes,” I told him, deadpan. “I am so, so excited.” And then, when the meeting was over, I gathered up my notes and left, the flip chart pages still dangling from the walls. Goodbye.

That evening, I was back at my office, finishing up some copy, when the phone rang. The caller interrupted my “hello” to tell me he’d been recommended by a friend of mine. “He SAYS you’re a writer; do you even have a website?” The sneer came through the line, and he interrupted me before I could spell out the URL. “My agency is writing blog posts for me at $300 per post,” he grumbled. “Well then, I would charge more,” I said, evenly. “Tell me why you’d be better than my agency,” he shot back. And I took a breath. “No, I won’t tell you that. You can look at my website and read my work, then decide for yourself. But I’m not going to pitch you on why I’m a good writer; I have plenty of happy clients who think so.” He started a long ramble about how writing got easier the more you did it, and once I’d written a few blog posts for him, I could crank them out in mere minutes. “There is no volume discount,” I said, catching his drift. And then, breaking the fourth wall I usually keep between work and my real life, I added: “I’m leaving for yoga class now. Goodbye.”

Some people are dissatisfied at their jobs twice a day, or twice an hour, or just all the damn time. I figure that being truly miserable only two times in the past few years is probably a pretty good average.  With that in mind, I’ll try to keep at this as long as I can, happily fixing and pollinating. The flip chart pages, the dried-out markers and those pasted-on smiles are, blessedly, not part of my job, not these days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Adoption math

Trust me, I spend as little time as possible thinking about math equations. Today, though, I’ve had math on my mind. Maybe it’s because I’ve been interviewing a lot of scientists lately, and some of their smarts might be rubbing off on me (that’s scientifically proven, right?). Either that, or the guy from the Harvard-MIT genetics lab did a mind meld on me during our phone interview. (He was certainly smart enough.)

Math seems to be the best way for me to make sense of the topic that’s really been front-and-center for me this week: adoption. Yesterday afternoon, I sat across from my daughter in a cafĂ©, sipping a cup of coffee and thinking about the impenetrable sense of loss she sometimes feels when she reflects on her life. “I was left in an orphanage when I was an infant, and I spent four months there. I don’t have words now for that kind of loss, because I didn’t have words then,” she told me. I nodded, and sipped, and thought. The day she was put in my arms was one of the happiest in my life. For her, it was something altogether different: not entirely happy and not entirely sad. My joy in that moment clouded the forethought to see how my utterly joyful experience was not at all the same experience for her. If I’d been keeping a tally sheet at the coffee shop, there would have been a checkmark in the “loss” column for adoption.

And then this afternoon I was invited to witness a friend’s adoption finalization hearing. On the 15th floor of a Minneapolis office building, my friend’s image was video-transpor-telemated to a courtroom in Florida. (Okay, so maybe the Harvard guy didn’t really help me all that much). My friend sat surrounded by people who love her, represented by mother, niece and friends, with three adoptive parents and one adopted young man represented. We were holding back sniffles and collectively bearing witness to the great good thing she and Josiah were doing for each other.

Together in that conference room, we were people who made space for fleeting but incredibly significant moment. We stood watch as that heart-meltingly beautiful six-month-old try to scoot across the conference table and eat the phone cords. The judge signed the paperwork, and we burst into tears and applause, probably not a very common sound in that particular conference room. It felt good to put that upbeat vibration, plus a dollop of baby drool, into that starkly serious space. I realized, as I tucked my handkerchief back into my pocket, that I was now tallying a checkmark in the “plus” column for adoption. For today, it was a great good thing that could not be denied, not if you looked for one moment at that mother’s face, or at all the beaming ones of her loving community. It’s been a long time since I felt such a lightness of heart, and certainly never on a Tuesday afternoon in downtown Minneapolis, so that has to count for something in adoption’s favor.

Back at work this afternoon, I am looking out my office window at a Starfire Maple that’s inspiring today, but will be bleakly barren in just a few weeks. The shorts-clad rollerbladers zipping down the big hill outside will be replaced by bundled-up and booted weather warriors. Everything changes. The beloved, dreamed-for child carries a story that began one way, was crossed out, and was started over. Adopted children live edited lives, and some of them find that redirection a very hard burden to bear. Sometimes, all the love in the world isn’t enough to save them from that pain.

But—and here is the secret I wonder if even my Harvard guy is willing to tell himself—sometimes love, just love, is exactly enough for what is needed today. And today was one of those times.