Tassajara Magic

Tassajara Zen CenterLast weekend, I went away with my friend Phil for a long weekend to Tassajara, a Zen monastery and hot springs four hours south of here, in the mountains outside of Carmel Valley. This was our second Tassajara trip and I am hopeful we’re going to make this an annual tradition. It’s hard to describe the calming magic of Tassajara. Tassajara is the oldest Soto Zen monastery in the United States. The hot springs are the main physical attraction, though Tassajara is about so much more than the hot springs. The hot springs were originally discovered by the Esselen native people and even then the springs were known for their restorative properties. Later in the 1900s , the hot springs were part of a mountain resort, where Californians would come to “take the cure” for the supposed healing powers waters. By the 50s and early 60s, the resort had fallen in disrepair and then was rediscovered by Shunryu Roshi who founded the San Francisco Zen Center and brought new life to Tassajara, as a center for the study of Zen Buddhism. Tassajara today remains an active Zen monastery, where for most of the year, students come here for the monastic life, to meditate and study Buddhism. During the spring and summer, Tassajara is open for the “guest season” and “guests” from the lay world can come for retreats and workshops, or just to get away. The hot springs themselves are beautiful and relaxing, with the baths having a very Japan architecture, adding to the relaxing zen feel. A babbling creek runs through the center of Tassajara and its melody. along with the chirping birds, is constantly in the background. At regularly intervals in the day, its gurgling is interrupted with the gentle gongs and bells from the Zendo, calling the students to Zazen (meditation). Part of the magic of Tassajara is the journey. Tassajara itself is that end of the long 14 mile rugged, narrow, steep and winding one-lane dirt road, one that some are brave enough to drive but we got a ride from the nearby town via the Tassajara “stage” (aka a SUV with 4 wheel drive and good brakes!). My first ever trip to Tassajara was one where I drove alone and made the mistake of arriving close to dusk. I’ll never forget that drive down that bumpy, narrow, dirt road, wondering whether I would ever get out of there alive. I was smart enough for that trip (having been warned!) to have rented a 4 wheel drive (there’s no way my little car would have made it!) but even so, it was by far the scariest drive of my life. It’s common for cars to burn out their breaks or pop tires coming down this road. Our driver told us that at least four times per season someone’s car completely breaks down. The funniest story of this season was the person who drove their Tessla in not realizing that they would not be able to charge it once there (talk about clueless and entitled!). When you are driving down that road,  one wonders why people even bother, but then, you get to the bottom, and there you are, in this truly magical place. The stress of the drive just melts away. You really feel like you are a million miles away from the real world when you’re there. There is no internet or phone reception and in  fact, you’re discouraged from even having your phone visible.  Electricity is also limited. Even a few years ago, none of the cabins had electricity. The only lights there were old-fashioned gas lanterns, but now they’ve exchanged these with solar lights. The food is all vegetarian and super-delicious, especially the home baked Tassajara bread that they are so famous for. Whenever I arrive at Tassajara, I just notice my body and mind getting lighter. My steps slow down and I can feel my mind recentering. I had first come to Tassajara a few years ago for a workshop, not quite knowing what to expect. I initially took up meditation in the period after my Mom died. That was a difficult time for me and meditation helped me refind myself and start to come to terms with the grief and trauma of her illness and death. I had heard about Tassajara from various people over the years but never made the trip myself. It’s one of those places where people come year after year. Phil and I met people who have been making the annual pilgrimage for 30 plus years. As a result, it’s not so easy to get a reservation. On my first visit, I actually got lucky and signing up for this workshop was a rather spur of the moment decision and lucky break that there was a last minute opening. That workshop, which was about making life changes, really transformed me in many ways, and I got my first taste of the magic of Tassajara. It seemed fated somehow. This past weekend was no less perfect. We spent the weekend hiking, lounging in the hot springs, swimming in the creek’s swimming pool, reading and just catching up and slowing down. The special moments are many—sitting in the hot springs at night staring up at a sky overflowing with stars; escaping the incessant pull of my iphone and not thinking about emails for three whole days;  watching the blue jays chatter up a storm from our porch overlooking the creek; swimming in the swimming hole at the Narrows; naps by the pool and sleeping late; watching my mind slow down and catching up with myself. Bliss. Throughout this adoption journey and especially as I wait, it’s been really helpful for me to find time, like this weekend, to get away. With the adoption wait, you are always “on” somehow, waiting for the phone to ring or an email to arrive. Most of the time, it’s just crickets, seemingly nothing happening and the phone silent and yet, I am in constant fear being out of contact and missing THE call. It’s hard to be constantly on call and waiting, so I made a decision early on not to put my life on hold while I waited. Sure, that does mean special arrangements sometimes—like this weekend, making sure my counselors had the main phone number at Tassajara if something came up or buying trip insurance for my vacations, just in case they need to be cancelled. It’s not that I wouldn’t drop everything to be ready when the time comes—in fact, I probably would even have hiked out that 14 mile dirt road from Tassajara if that were necessary. But, making sure that I still enjoy my life for what it is, as it is now, keeps me grounded and optimistic, even when the wait seems unbearable.


The Letter

!!! With Bodhi 4 (possible back cover)I’ve been working on a revised “Dear Birthmother Letter” and at long last, it’s finished! The final prints came in the mail this week! For those of you who have been following my adoption journey, I should perhaps back-up a bit. I decided a little while back to diversify my adoption strategy and started working with an additional adoption agency. I really like IAC (Independent Adoption Center, the nonprofit open adoption-focused agency I’ve been working with since I started this process), but for various reasons, I started to feel that I wanted a more hands-on approach to help me find my way to this special baby. It was a big step (and major financial commitment) to start working with a second agency, but I feel like it’s the right choice for me and have been excited for this next step. This agency has a bit of a different outreach philosophy than IAC and a different approach to the “Dear Birthmother Letter,” so here I am, revising my Letter again.

For friends who may not know about the “Dear Birthmother Letter,” “The Letter” (as I’ll refer to it) is a key part of the adoption process. It’s the first view that most Birthmoms have of prospective families and key part of the whole adoption networking process. I think I speak for most wanna-be adoptive parents when I say that “The Letter” might be one of the hardest, most-time consuming and fraught parts of the whole adoption process. At one point, I think the “Dear Birthmother Letter” was literally that, a letter to the prospective Birthmother, maybe with some photos included. Now these Letters are essentially glossy multi-paged photospreads. Preparing my IAC letter was harder and more emotionally tortured than even preparing for the homestudy.  These days, most of the adoption process happens online, where birthparents are presented with profiles of potential adoptive parents.  In the ideal, “The Letter” is intended to give birthparents a view of the potential family/person who may adopt their child. “The Letter” and on-line profile is a window into the adoptive parents, who they are, what their lives are like, why they want to adopt.This all seems incredibly reasonable, when seen from the Birthmother’s point of view, but still the whole concept of putting together this profile really intimidated me. In many ways, the adoption process these days seems a lot like online dating. (A comparison which seems chock full of irony  for me personally, considering that my distaste for online dating is a good part of the reason why I’m still single!) I’m a very private person and I intentionally keep a low online and social-media profile in the rest of my life. I’ll admit that initially hearing about “The Letter” and the whole process involved made me very anxious. I’m not a person who likes to talk about myself. I don’t even like having my photo taken. I like to live below the radar, so the idea of spilling out my life into what is essentially a glossy marketing brochure and online profile and on top of that, one that needed to stand out from a crowd gave me heart palpitations. There’s also this immediate feeling of being judged (pick me!), a feeling I found heightened when I perused other wanna-be adoptive family’s profiles. Reading those profiles, the other wanna-be parents all sound so very perfect, lovely and so right to be great parents. My insecure side wondered how I could possibly compare? Plus, while I usually am quite content with my life as a single woman, somehow, seeing this sea of shiny happy-looking couples, got me wondering why anyone would pick just me. At the same time, I couldn’t help but think how hard it must be for Birthmoms to sort through all these profiles, looking for that special one without knowing even what to look for.  Can you really tell who would be a good parent from one of these Letters? There is this sameness to the formatting and the language that makes it hard to stand out from the crowd.

Well, the first go-round of putting together my Letter, was really tough. Writer’s block to the extreme. For weeks, it was all I thought about. I walked around just thinking about to present who I am and my hopes and dreams for this baby into words and pictures on a page. The agency put forward very specific recommendations for format and what to say, which is helpful in some ways when you’re staring at a blank page, but very quickly starts to feel formulaic and not true to who I am. There’s also the issue of the photos. The agencies also have very specific recommendations for photos. For the IAC Letter, the recommendation was to have as many photos with children as possible. Now, I love kids and I love my friends’ kids, but I had few photos to document this, so for a few months, there were a lot of “photoshoots” with friends and their kids. Of course, it made me laugh when the new agency told me that their style favors photos of hobbies and your “adult life.” So, out with the kid shots and in with the hobby shots!

All this being said, as difficult as the process was I actually am so pleased with how my Letter turned out. In the end, what helped me to pull it all together (literally and psychologically) and made the process more meaningful and real for me, was thinking about this as not just a letter to the woman who would give birth to the baby I would be lucky enough to adopt but also a letter to my future child. Someday, I will be able to share this with him or her and show her/him what my life was like while he/she was just a dream. It’s the beginning of the story of our family and the first family scrapbook of many more to come.

I had a lot of help along the way and in particular, wanted to thank a few people who helped me create a Letter that really represents me, as I am. My friend Luis was very generous to be step in as the photographer for a number of my “photoshoots.” Not only did he take beautiful photos but he supplied his gorgeous children, Eleanor and Sebastian, as props! Thanks also to Eleanor and Sebastian for looking so completely adorable in all the photos. Who wouldn’t look awesome next to these two cuties! For my revised Letter, I decided to have some professional photos taken of me with Bodhi. I have a ton of photos of Bodhi and he always looks cute but I had very few photos of the two of us together. After researching pet photographers on Yelp, my dogsitter recommended a friend of his, Patty Nason. Patty was awesome! She spent the afternoon with Bodhi and I at a local park and took the most precious photos of Bodhi and me.  I treasure these photos—one of my favorites is above. She really captured us both so well. Plus, who doesn’t love having someone shouting out flattering comments like “you look beautiful” and “great smile” for a whole afternoon. I felt like a movie star at a red carpet event! Patty is starting her own photography business and so I wanted to give her a shout out. She was lovely to work with and made me feel so comfortable and joyful and at ease—which is saying alot coming from a camera-phobic person like me! Check out her website here and hire her! She does great headshots too! Last, but definitely not least, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Joanna Ivey from Our Chosen Child who did all the design work on my Letter and really made it all come together. Joanna is a amazing and I am so glad that my agency recommended working with her. I am not sure how she works her magic but Joanna is the fairy-godmother of adoption Letters. She took my carefully crafted text and collection of random photos and made them sparkle with life. Knowing only a little about me, she managed to capture my style and personality perfectly. And finally, to various friends who contributed photos and thoughtful suggestions and edits and supported me throughout this process, thank you, all of you. They say it takes a village to raise a child—who knew it also takes a village to write a very special Letter!

And so, without further adieu, the grand reveal, drumroll please—here is my new Letter!

Katja’s Adoption Letter

I really do love it and so hope it works its magic, that somewhere out there, there is a special woman thinking about adoption for her child and sees me in this Letter and says, yes, she’s the special Mom for my special baby!