A Quiet Influence

When I was young, I walked to school. Every day from September to May, I would put on my backpack and walk down the street, past the six houses that completed our block, over the wooden bridge that spanned the flood-control creekbank, its peeling paint and gaping floorboards terrifying, its underside certainly home to trolls, or snakes, or sixth-graders, and finally across the soccer field to the school building. Less than two city blocks, but it felt HUGE back then. Grown-up. Important.

The school building itself was fairly ordinary: classrooms, mostly, surrounding a gym where we spent a lot of time – lunch every day and physical education three days a week – and an auditorium where we spent very little. Ours wasn’t a big place for The Arts, so most days the auditorium sat empty and somewhat extraneous. Like a sixth toe, more novelty than useful.

Every other year, for one day in November, that changed. On that day, we were told to be extra quiet in the halls and ushered outside around the building, rather than through the auditorium, when going to and from gym, lunch and music class. Throughout the day there would be strange cars in the parking lot, adults we didn’t know bustling about and in and out. Despite the perfect opportunity for a civics lesson, I don’t recall ever being told what was happening on those days, other than perhaps that people were “voting.”

Fortunately, my mother wasn’t one to miss an opportunity. Always one to lead by example rather than oration, she picked me up after school and promptly lead me back around the building to the auditorium. I stood by her side in a room transformed into something purposeful, its usual aura of musty neglect transformed into something that felt consecrated, almost holy. Long tables piled with paperwork and clipboard lists of names stood near the doorway, and around the room, set tastefully apart and discreetly curtained with heavy green damask stood large, clunky box-machines like overgrown, metal, upright pianos.

Mom signed off on paperwork and took an instructional booklet; stepped into one of the machines with all the reverence of a confessional booth. Behind the curtain, the boxes had little levers instead of piano keys, each one representing a choice. She explained this to me – that she was picking the people she wanted to be our leaders, the people who would make our rules and laws. She explained that she chose the people she believed would be wise, and lead us with discernment and smart thinking. She did not, however, tell me their names. That wasn’t for me to worry about. Each of us made our own choice, and we didn’t have to agree with anyone else about it. It was personal and private.

She took me to vote with her several times over the years, once more to my elementary school, then later to a church, never talking much about it – just showing up and doing what she believed to be her basic civic duty. When I turned 18 and moved to another state for college, she made sure I got an absentee ballot so I could vote, for our president and for the first time. That November, she called me.

“Gretchen – I went to vote and your name was under mine and it was highlighted. I asked what that meant, and they said that meant that you had turned in your ballot. I just wanted you to know that they got it!”

In the years since then, there’ve been many, many school gymnasiums and church lobbies and neighborhood recreation centers, everyday places transformed with reverent purpose. I’ve stood in lines for hours with my friends and neighbors, waiting to exercise my privilege and duty as a citizen. I’ve never voted in the same place as my mom, and I’d wager that we’ve probably never voted for the same people. I vote for far greater reasons than “my mom told me to,” but I vote, and I care about that vote (and what happens after), because she showed me to.

A sort of rambling, stream-of-consciousness update thingy

I really don’t want to do this. Seriously, I don’t know that I’ve ever had this much resistance to anything in my entire life.

OK, this is going to sound a bit…narcissistic (I guess?). But I think there’s some comfort in selling oneself short. Doing one’s second-best thing. Or even third-best. Knowing one’s calling/soul work/passion and taking half a step to the left, to the slightly easier path.

It sounds good at first – like going for a body shot instead of aiming at the head because, you know, it’s a bigger target and you don’t have to work so hard and it will totally slow the zombie down, at least, and isn’t that really all you need? Except for the part where it’s a zombie, and even going slowly it can outlast you, and what you really, really need, above all else, is for there to be less zombies, not more running away. And the aiming for the head, making that kill shot, is the only thing that will actually get you closer to your goal, closer to that place where you can stop focusing on just survival and start aiming at happiness. Or just, you know, normal (whatever that looks like).

And I think it’s pretty common to sell oneself short a bit, take the safe path. After all, it’s not called the safe path because “safe” showed up in the Word of the Day calendar back when more primitive people were mulling their philosophies and coming up with neat names for things. Safe has pretty significant advantages, evolutionarily speaking. Survival being pretty useful and all that – there’s certainly, absolutely nothing wrong with taking a safe path. It’s the smart thing. Admirable. Healthy.


Except for that whole thing where “safe” isn’t what you were made for. Even if your skills and talents (and this is the narcissistic bit) allow you me to thrive quite nicely. I’ve always been damn good at a lot of things. There’s any number of safe things that would allow me to live well by any standard. Allow me, economically speaking, to thrive (and then some).
As it turns out, I don’t think I was built for safe. Which isn’t to say that I’m a big risk-taker. I’m kinda the polar opposite, actually, especially when it comes to what and how I show myself to other people. What thoughts and opinions I let out into the world (Probably a shock to some of you. Seriously, you have no idea how much I hold back on the day-to-day, how much I don’t let out.). I’m particularly cautious when it comes to anything that might cause me harm – physically and psychologically – or bring harm to those I love. We all are, right? It’s instinctive to protect ourselves – that survival thing again.

And as I’ve said, all that is awesome as long your ability to thrive aligns with the safe life-paths available to you. And while my personal safe paths might do that for me economically, they do absolutely nothing for my heart or my head.

What I’m interested in, what really does stir my heart and ignite my head, is community. Specifically, the political community: how we organize and govern ourselves and how we share resources. How all of us amazingly nutty individual humans manage to live on this planet in relative peace… or, more accurately, why we don’t.

Which sounds awesome, right? OK, to me it sounds awesome. It should, at least, sound innocuous. Nothing inherently risky, right? Especially if one is exorcising these passions through one’s writing – a vaunted and classic tradition, philosophy and public debate and investigation and reporting.


Except for the part where I’m not the only one who’s incredibly passionate about this stuff. And my investigations, my reports, my analysis, all my hard work – it doesn’t always agree with what many of those folks would like to hear. And because I’m a writer, and because these days we do this writing thing in the instant, easy space of the Internet, every single pixel leaves me vulnerable. Not because it’s public and open to critique – that is, after all, the entire point of this sort of work and the very thing that drives me to do excellent work and participate at all – but because we’ve decided that one’s choice to do public work is an invitation to analyze and opine upon them personally. We believe we have the right to decide and declare, loudly and repeatedly, whether they are morally upright, intellectually intriguing, fuckable, rape-able and even whether or not they should live or die. And all that before we’ve even dug into the subject matter, the meat of which may place me at odds with family and friends, with my community, even with my government.
This is risk. It is a risk not to be taken lightly, and that, when coupled with the idea of completely changing careers at this point in my life, with starting over as an amateur here, now, has left me paralyzed.

I have taken every swerve, tried every alternate path I’ve come across. There is no shame in staying safe. But the cognitive dissonance and heartache required to stay here, to not do this work, have literally made me ill. What I thought would keep me safe just didn’t. It kept me sick and sad and broke and isolated.

So I’m done with that. I’m starting over once more time, and I’m declaring it publicly, openly, raw and vulnerable. Expect to see more from me, some here but mostly in other spaces. I’ve got a couple of projects in the works that will launch in the very near future – more specific in scope than this space, but not so specifically personal. If these sorts of things interest you, if what I’ve said resonates, I’d love your support. If not, feel free to go your own way. I promise I won’t think any less of you.

Yours in Revolution,


Adoption Day – Now in Photos

So yesterday I wrote about being adopted, and mentioned a photo with the judge who formalized said procedure, which at the time I believed to be lost. Well. What was lost has now been found!

It’s a bit different than I remembered – there’s no black robe, and there’s two old dudes (one of whom must be the clerk? I have no idea.), but it is still awesome. And a great way for my folks to open a conversation about my origins without it being a big deal – double parenting points for them!

On Adoption and Expanding Definitions of Family

Mom & Gretchen - Adoption Day

I’m adopted. When I was a little kid, I thought everyone was adopted. You see, I had a tiny photo album my parents used to tell me about where I came from. It was the only album in the house that was all mine, and we’d sit and go through the pictures, labeling each of them.

“This is you you with Grandpa.”

“This is you on Mother’s Day last year.”

“This is when we brought you home.”

“This is us with the judge when you were adopted.”

That was it. Simple and matter-of-fact, my parents told me about where I came from, starting with that odd little photograph of Mom, Dad, me (at about 6 months old), and some old guy in a black robe.((That photo, alas, has gone missing)) As I was able to understand, they added details. How my first mom wasn’t able to take care of me. How Mom and Dad really wanted a baby, a kid just like me to be part of their family. How they got to bring me home right before Thanksgiving, and how exciting it all was. How they eventually went to see that old-guy-in-a-robe and make it all official.

They made it 100 percent normal. So normal, in fact, that for a long time I didn’t understand that “adoption” and “starting out with a different set of parents” were the same thing. I thought people had babies, and they kept them or they gave them to other people, and then at some point, when it was all settled, the parents would go in front of the judge and say, “This one. This is my kid.”((I’m actually not sure this is such a bad idea. I mean, how cool would it be if every kid knew that their parents had declared them wanted, and had their own pictures with the judges that made it official?))

I have no idea how much chaos I caused by telling all my friends that everyone was adopted. I do know that I finally got all straightened out after asking my mom when we were taking my (biological) baby brother to see the judge.((I was six-and-a-half years old and so proud of my “miracle brother” that I took him to kindergarten for show and tell.)) And when I finally understood the whole of adoption, it was still no big deal. Just another way – one of many – to make a family, and a pretty darn neat and useful one at that.

As I got older, I began to understand that while adoption is a pretty awesome idea, the execution is loaded down with baggage.

First I learned that a lot of people think of adopted kids as second rate, and that people think that parents can’t love adopted kids as much as biological kids.

I learned that lots of kids need homes, but that the chances of finding them decrease dramatically if one is not a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white baby girl.

That parents who adopt kids from other cultures may be woefully privilege-blind, and that those kids can end up feeling like they don’t quite belong anywhere.

That a lot of adoptive parents see themselves as saviors – taking kids from “underprivileged” or “savage” cultures and “lifting them up.”

That a lot of adoption is possible because of the sexist, classist, jingoistic society we live in, and the government policies that support it.

And while all of that is true, it’s not always true, and it doesn’t even have to be an issue, which is why despite all the problems with adoption, I’m still pretty darn favorable toward it.

Adoption is awesome because at its core it challenges our notion of what “family” is in an extremely positive way. Let me explain.

One of the strangest and most hurtful things people have said to me is, “I could never raise someone else’s kid.” This person will often go on to explain how impossible it is to adopt babies, how anyone older is just “such a problem,” and how they want a kid that “looks like me.”

This person will talk about all the issues adopted kids have, and how they just wouldn’t want to deal with all that – as if their biology is somehow a guarantee for a perfect, problem-free child.

They’ll talk about how expensive and unpredictable and emotional the adoption process is – and then plan round after unsuccessful round of fertility treatments that put them at war with their body and on edge with their partner.

But mostly they’ll talk about how deep blood ties are, the unmeasurable value of biology as a bond, as the only means to love.((Never mind that we generally create biological children with someone who is not biologically related to us. Or the judgmental insult toward anyone whose biological family has betrayed them in some way.))

Before I learned anything else about adoption, I understood this: biology has nothing to do with the ability to love someone wholly, fully and intensely.

Family isn’t about biology, and it’s really not about creating an army of Mini-Mes.((Seriously, if this is why you want to pro-create, do the rest of us a favor and stop now.)) It’s about who you love, who you share life with. It’s about learning from one another, challenging one another and bringing up the next generation of humans to be functional, loving and brilliant adults.

It’s National Adoption Month, and it’s nearly Thanksgiving. I’m not saying we should all run out and adopt, but if the idea of adoption is hard for you, or if you struggle with a picture of family that isn’t Breadwinner-Dad + Stay-at-Home-Mom + 2.5-Biological-Kids, may I suggest you consider that there’s more to it than that? Expanding our notion of family is the first step toward a world that celebrates each person as valuable and awesome, and that’s something worth being grateful for.


If you are a non-heteronormative family who’d like to grow via adoption, the Human Rights Campaign is sponsoring a Twitter chat tomorrow (Tuesday, November 17, 2014) night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time. More information here or follow #LGBTAdoption.


ETA: My folks found the judge pic



…to institute new government