When Beth Nonte Russell travels to China to help her friend Alex adopt a baby girl from an orphanage there, she thinks it will be an adventure, a chance to see the world. But her friend, who had prepared for the adoption for many months, panics soon after being presented with the frail baby, and the situation develops into one of the greatest challenges of Russell's life.
Russell, watching in disbelief as Alex distances herself from the child, cares for the baby -- clothing, bathing, and feeding her -- and makes her feel secure in the unfamiliar surroundings. Russell is overwhelmed and disoriented by the unfolding drama and all that she sees in China, and yet amid the emotional turmoil finds herself deeply bonding with the child. She begins to have dreams of an ancient past -- dreams of a young woman who is plucked from the countryside and chosen to be empress, and of the child who is ultimately taken from her. As it becomes clear that her friend -- whose indecisiveness about the adoption has become a torment -- won't be bringing the baby home, Russell is amazed to realize that she cannot leave the baby behind and that her dreams have been telling her something significant, giving her the courage to open her heart and bring the child home against all odds.
Steeped in Chinese culture, Forever Lily is an extraordinary account of a life-changing, wholly unexpected love.
Reading Group Guide
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Touchstone Reading Group Guide Forever Lily Discussion Questions 1. What does the author reveal about her personal life and character in the first chapter by telling her story in the first person? What do we know about her that she does not tell us explicitly? Why do you think the author chose to use the present tense to tell this story? 2. Considering they weren't the closest of friends, why do you think Beth agreed to accompany Alex to China? Why do you think Alex asked Beth to come with her to China? 3. When the adoption agency brings the baby to Alex, she is markedly disappointed. What is your opinion of Alex at this moment? What are your feelings toward Alex by the end of the book? 4. What would you do if you were an adoptive mother and you did not bond with your prospective child? If the author had not accompanied Alex to China, what do you think would have happened to the baby? 5. Do you think the author was destined to go to China and adopt Lily? If what happened was destiny, and events were meant to unfold as they did, how does this affect your feelings about Alex? What role does choice play in destiny? 6. When the author confesses her need to adopt Lily to her husband, are you surprised by his response? What does this tell you about their relationship? How would such a situation have been handled in your own marriage or primary relationship? 7. How do the author's dreams relate to what is happening during her waking hours? What do the dreams add to the telling of the story? Have you personally experienced significant dreams that have had an impact on your life? 8. In the prologue to Forever Lily, Russell writes, "Dying is nothing like we suppose." Is the author talking about death literally or metaphorically? When looking at the dream sequences in Forever Lily, what does death symbolize to the author? 9. After reading Forever Lily, what are your impressions of China? Did they change as a result of reading this? Compare how women are viewed in the United States as opposed to how they are viewed in China. 10. In Forever Lily, spiritual thought and prayer play a major role in how the author processes her experience. Do you think the outcome would have been the same had this not been the case? Why or why not? Activities 1. Invite parents who have adopted a child from another country to your reading group to share the challenges they faced, from the initial decision-making process, to how they dealt with the confusing paperwork, to traveling to their child's country of origin, to life in the United States afterward. 2. Set the mood for your Forever Lily reading group meeting by playing Chinese music and serving Chinese food. The author recommends "Silk Road Journeys," by the cellist Yo Yo Ma, and music from the Beijing Angelic Children's Choir, both of which she used while writing Forever Lily. 3. Research the symbols that are most prevalent in Forever Lily and discuss their meaning in Chinese and esoteric mythology. For example: the dragon, the lotus, shoes, the dove, the kite, etc. 4. Discuss personal experiences of your own that may have been outside the norm, such as strange dreams or visions, and explore the ways in which they made an impact on your life or a decision-making process. Interview with Beth Nonte Russell 1. Since you were not a working writer at the time you went to China, how did you come to the decision to write Forever Lily, and why? Though I had never written for publication, writing was something I enjoyed and did regularly before this trip took place. When I returned from China, I knew beyond a doubt that I would write this story and try to share it with others. It felt quite different in that there was a strong urge to tell others about the abandoned children that I had seen in the orphanage there; I felt obligated to be their voice. Thoughts of those children would not let me go, and I began writing the book a year after I returned. One night, I finally sat down and wrote the passages that describe the orphanage visit, and that section, those images, became the heart of the book. 2. Now that time has passed and you have perspective on what happened during your first trip to China, why do you think Alex asked you to accompany her? I believe that she was prompted to do so by an unconscious need to balance the karma between us. As the experience in China proved to me, there is always much more at work in any given situation than we are aware of on a conscious level, and in the case of Alex and my friendship, I believe the "much more" that was at work was a karmic debt from a past lifetime in which she was instrumental in my having lost a child. In this lifetime, she was given the opportunity to balance that debt by asking me to accompany her to China, and I was given the opportunity to accept a gift of love into my life. 3. What is your relationship with Alex and her family today? My husband and Alex's husband made an agreement that following the adoption hearing we would have no further contact between our families. We all agreed this was best for everyone concerned, especially Lily, and we have never regretted that decision. 4. What were the biggest differences between your experiences with mothering your stepchildren and your adoptive children? What were the biggest factors that contributed to these differences? In the case of my stepchildren, they already had a mother whom they loved and who loved them. I played a parental role, but not a central role, in their lives. I was not their mother, and therefore the emotional connection was of a different nature, perhaps less intense. I don't consider Lily and Jaden my "adoptive" children; they are just my children in the most complete sense. Their father and I have total responsibility for their welfare, and I doubt they think of me as their "adoptive" mother.... I am their mother with no qualifiers attached to that term. 5. The dream sequences are quite detailed and follow a distinct narrative path. Were they changed or embellished for the telling of Forever Lily? The dreams as I experienced them in China were less complete and more fractured than the way I recount them in the book. When I returned from China, I spent many hours in meditation, reentering the dreams, which were actually a past-life experience. In that way, I was able to gain access to the narrative of that lifetime as well as minute and colorful details. In writing the book, I combined actual dreams with details, which I found out later through those meditations, in order to give the reader a sense that the dreams were indicating a complete lifetime. 6. Memoir is one of the most risky literary forms because one person's "truth" can be quite a bit different from another person's "truth," which can have profound consequences on relationships. How did you decide which aspects of your life to include in Forever Lily? The experience of reality is always subjective. With Forever Lily, I did not set out to write a memoir, to tell "about" my life; instead, I hoped to give the reader a chance to share the experience and bridge the gap of subjectivity. My primary intention was to let the reader enter my internal psychological, emotional, and spiritual process as it took place in the context of this particular event. And also, I hoped to show that the transformation which occurred for me during this trip was not random or sudden; the forces of that transformation had been building for many years. For that reason, I included only those things from my life which I felt would be helpful in understanding how and why this happened the way that it did, hoping that perhaps it would give others a road map for their own transformational process. 7. In the five years between your visits, China had changed dramatically. When you adopted your second daughter, what were the biggest differences in the process? The two trips were dramatically different, but not so much because of the five-year interval or the changes within China. They were different because the second adoption was intentional on our part, and we were able to prepare emotionally in a way that was not possible in the first adoption. Another big difference was that our girls came from different regions of a vast country. During the first trip, we traveled to very poor, rural areas in central China, which was grueling; in the second, we stayed in the large and thriving southern city of Guangzhou with all the amenities that city had to offer. My sense was that the process of adoption had not changed much, if at all, in the five-year span between trips. 8. Why was Josephine worried for you while you were in China? The answer to that question is actually very complicated. Though Josephine is not psychic, she is gifted in being able to discern certain things in the metaphysical realm which are outside most people's awareness. In her view, something of immense importance was taking place while I was in China, and her concern was that something would happen to prevent it from unfolding. She was concerned for both my spiritual and my physical safety, mainly because the lifetime which this event was resolving had ended in my premature physical death in ancient China. Events have a tendency to repeat themselves until the cycles are broken, and my bringing this baby home safely was a breakthrough in that regard, for me as well as for the many others involved in both lifetimes, including Josephine herself. 9. How did Josephine react to your decision to adopt a second baby? Is she still your spiritual advisor? Josephine's goal as a spiritual advisor is to help the client understand and utilize his or her own power, which is always within. My original agreement with her was to work together for three years, and when that time was up, we continued to speak often, though our work together became more of a partnership. She gave advice and counsel based on her understandings, but in the end, it was always up to me to decide the best course of action. When I first told her I was going to China, she advised me not to go, and when I told her of my plans to adopt a second child, in her opinion, it was not a good idea. But once the decisions were made, whether I took her advice or not, she could help me to make the most of the situation by utilizing prayer and helping me to understand the situation in a much deeper way. 10. What is your favorite aspect of the Chinese culture? How do you share these customs with your children? Though I have grown to love many things about China, I am not an expert on Chinese culture. There is so much focus on these girls being Chinese, but in my view, I am raising two American daughters who happen to have been born in China. They spent the earliest few months of their lives there and will spend the great majority of their lives here, but I do hope that at some point they will have an interest in the land of their birth. To that end, I have begun a library of books about China for my daughters to read when they are ready, and I also hope to travel with them to China many times in the coming years. Because Chinese history is complicated, especially where the circumstances of their lives are concerned, it is important to be very thoughtful in the way Chinese culture is discussed with them. My hope is that my girls will gain a deeper understanding of China over time and be able to make their own decisions about how far they want to take that interest.
Beth Nonte Russell received a master's degree in psychology from Marymount University and provided counseling services at a community mental health center. She lives with her husband and two daughters, Lily and Jaden, outside Washington, D.C.