At home on the prairie

  • Article by: EDIE BARRETT
  • Updated: December 22, 2012 - 5:17 PM

We simply have no idea what the ramifications are of extending hospitality and love to one child from another part of the world.

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Indian Grass at Schaefer Prairie near Glencoe, Minn., on Thursday, September 13, 2012. Schaefer Prairie is a remnant of the once-vast northern tallgrass prairie that covered millions of acres in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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I never would have signed up for this. Not that I'm against it -- it's just so far out of my range of experience. At the end of August, my neighbor called: "Edie, is there any chance you would be willing to host a foreign-exchange student? There are six students hoping to come to America; they need a placement in the next five hours."

Given five months, I would have had a laundry list, alphabetical, of all my reasons to decline. I told her I would think about it. This was my way of having a bit more time to compose a graceful "no." When I hung up the phone, I really had to ask myself: What are my reasons? My former husband and I didn't have children. We were busy with our professional lives. As the years went by, it simply ceased to be a topic of conversation. When our 20-year marriage ended, we were both silently grateful that we'd never become parents.

So you can imagine my surprise and reservations when asked to consider taking on a teenager from another country. But there is a quote that I appreciate: "When we say yes to life, we open ourselves to a full range of possibilities; when we say no, we begin our own death process." I intuitively knew that to say no would be to turn away from fate knocking at my front door and to court wounding regret.

When my marriage ended, I had returned to Minnesota to live in a quiet rural community on Big Stone Lake, which borders South Dakota. I made a conscious decision to forgo television. I have a good imagination and no longer wanted the imagery of national and international news. I have managed very well with Newsweek, MPR and the Star Tribune.

While in Santa Barbara, Calif., for 26 years, I was involved in the world and with the world. My husband and I did a fair amount of traveling. Here, my life shifted from doing to being. While my southern friends cannot imagine my life in a parka, I love the weather here. It demands our respect.

I said yes.

I said yes to Winnie, a 15-year-old girl from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, China. Here in Ortonville, I often feel that I have found a quiet, discreet little corner of the world, but in fact, the world has come to me. Every day I look into Winnie's beautiful brown eyes and at her round face as full as the moon, and I am stunned at how easy it is to fall in love with someone else's child.

In my first career, I spent 12 years working with adolescents in psychological treatment. Most had come from challenging family backgrounds and had significant crime records. The nonprofit that I worked for specialized in sex offenders; it was one of the few in the state at that time. I have to admit that it was very effective birth control, but I also invested a lot of energy into those children and didn't have additional resources for my own. Consequently, my background has been with the criminally challenged, not the intellectually gifted.

While it was reasonable to have reservations about committing to a foreign-exchange student, a lot of my concern was whether I would meet her expectations. She had been waiting for a placement for 10 months, ample time to create and cultivate a fantasy of what her "American host family" would look like. I doubt if I fit the bill for either her or her parents: single woman, recently divorced, never had children, left southern California, a recovering professional who now defines herself as an artist and a writer.

Sounds fishy ... even to me.

But who is to say what an ideal American family is? Times have changed. When Winnie walks in the door after school, she is not greeted by a bustling family, but instead by the music of Diana Krall. I don't treat her like a child, because I never had one.

The other day she said something very interesting to me: "I think all the children of the world are all the same ... only parents different."

There was an irony at work between us. She waited for 10 months, and in the last five hours a placement was found. I, on the other hand, required five hours to agree. It is as if we both needed to pass through a sliver in time to find each other.

In the world of mythology, this would be defined as trickster energy. Every culture has a trickster: In the Norwegian pantheon of gods, it is Loki; for the Native Americans, it is coyote or fox, raven, or bear, depending on the tribe. Trickster energy always stirs things up, it is often unexpected, out of one's comfort zone, sometimes unorthodox and taboo, but it always seeks to bring truth, enlightenment and needed change.

I have a small painting in the entrance of my home of a fox; it is my reminder of trickster energy, to keep a flexible backbone and a sense of humor, and to trust the process of life.

• • •

After spending part of an afternoon touring the area with friends, Winnie looked at me and said, "I love it here. I don't want this just to be one year that turns to memory. I want this place part of mylife."

I can understand my sentimental feelings toward this landscape and its people, being a fifth-generation Minnesotan and a Norwegian. But it fascinates me how the prairie and this rural community have found a way into the heart of a young girl from China.

The truth is we simply have no idea what the ramifications are of extending hospitality and love to one child from another part of the world. This type of experience has the potential of a global ripple effect for everyone involved. Our experiences live with us throughout our entire lives. They affect our choices, our self-understanding and our investment in the world.

Between the economic crisis, war, violence and radical climate change, things feel precarious. Everyone has his or her own personal struggles and story. But here's what I'm thinking: The future of the world has to do with our capacity to love. Perhaps waiting for the ideal circumstance in an opportunity is no longer the priority, because how many of us enter a window of time we would define as ideal, and how long does that actually last? Maybe what it's really about is simply opening the door and saying yes.

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Edie Barrett worked in academic administration for nearly 14 years in the Department of Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute, in Santa Barbara, Calif. An artist and writer, she lives in Ortonville, Minn., with Winnie and with Lizzie the Yorkshire terrier. CIEE is the international student-exchange program that they work with.

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