As of October 18, my fourth novel, How to Save a Life, is officially out in the world. The plot involves a death, a pregnancy, and an adoption. Recently, a fellow writer said he thought it interesting that I, the same person who wrote about not being a mother here at Good Letters, had written a novel about how “creating life can heal and save.”
I gave him an answer about the handiness of the metaphor of pregnancy and expectation. About how we all spend so much of our lives waiting in expectation and hope for new life. About the many ways we “create life” in the context of human relationships—friendship, love, opening ourselves to being known by others, and saying yes to the good things (always accompanied by potential pain) that these relationships can bring us.
There is more, though, behind this adoption story, that I wasn’t consciously aware of in the writing process. As I enter into this strange time of promoting the book and being asked to talk about it as if there’s an explanation for why I write what I write, and what I’m “trying to say” in my fiction, I realize: I am forty-one years ingrained with the idea that adoption is central to the Christian gospel.
I grew up understanding that God chose to love me. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to. That I have free will, and so does God, and God chooses to exercise his will by calling me his own.
How this works, exactly, is a true mystery, one I sometimes find difficult to accept. When you introduce the concept of choice, you can wind up following it down a shadowy road to the question, “Am I worthy of being chosen?” Or more to the point, for some of us, for me, “Why would anyone choose me?”
At a very low point in my life, I sat in my counselor’s office in tears, frustrated and disgusted with myself. And I said that I wished God would leave me alone. Just put me back wherever he found me and walk away. I didn’t want to be his problem, and I didn’t want him to be mine.
My counselor’s reply went something like this:
Imagine you adopted a baby. From Romania, maybe. You took her from a dank and dark place where no one had the time, or took the time, to care for her. She was trapped in her crib and failing to thrive; no one touched her or held her or sang to her. You saw her, chose her, brought her home. Raised her. Fed her. Cleaned her. Claimed her and loved her. Taught her to walk and talk and sing and dance and be a person. And one day she came to you and said, “Take me back. Take me back to wherever it is you found me and walk away.”
Would I do as she asked?
The answer, I hope, is obvious.
As reluctant as I am to talk about “themes” in my work or to explain it or myself, I can see, after four published novels and three unpublished, that this idea of intentional family, of claiming and being claimed, is one of the themes lurking beneath and hovering around all of my work.
My stories seem to always involve people choosing to love other people, in spite of the pain those people have sometimes brought them, in spite of the way they let each other down, in spite of both their minor imperfections and deep flaws.
In the interviews I’ve done about How to Save a Life thus far, nine times out of ten I’m asked if I worried that one of the characters, Jill, was unsympathetic or unlikeable. No, I say. I didn’t worry about it. My editor did, to an extent, and I worked a little on showing glimpses of Jill’s humanity. But not much. Because the point about love, this free will love of the people we call family or true friends, the people we take into our lives, the ones that lead us to claim “you are mine,” is that it doesn’t depend on them (or us) being sympathetic characters.
It’s the kind of love we all hope for.
My characters look for and sometimes find it, in themselves or others, flashing in a moment of light.
If we are very blessed, we get those moments in the real world, with real people, the family and chosen family and friends who see us at our worst but remember what we look like at our best, and offer their love in both places and all between.
Yes, it is possible. But as I get older, and hopefully wiser, I understand that only God can do this in more than flashes, more than moments. Only God can give it in constancy and without need.
And yet: I believe this kind of love is worth looking for here in the incarnate world, too. It’s worth our feeble and flawed best attempts to give. Without our distorted versions of it, we wouldn’t even begin to fathom what a miracle it is when offered perfectly.
I’m always on the hunt for it, in my life, and on the page. Loving and advocating for my characters even when they’re unsympathetic or acting up or being their worst selves is part of how I understand my creator’s love for me.
Adoption, actual, spiritual, and metaphorical. Difficult people in painful circumstances. The exercise of free will to claim these difficult people as one’s own. Awkward fumbling for a kind of love that is almost impossible and almost guaranteed to bring pain. It doesn’t make great jacket copy. But if I’m “trying to say” anything with my fiction, or with my life, these seem to be the key pieces I’m given to work with, over and over.
And the work goes on.