Credo II (Morningside After Dark edit)

Three times a year — once in January, once in February, and once in April– a sympathetic and broad-minded crowd gathers in the basement of Morningside Church in Edina for a night of stories and songs on a particular theme. The event is free (donations to the church are always appreciated but not required) and always both life-and-spirit-affirming. 

Last night, I did my third MADark reading. I’m always honored to be included, but last night felt particularly special somehow. Anyway, here is the essay I read, a version of “Credo” I edited for last night’s theme: Growing Pains.

 

Lizzie on Henry's shoulder

 

First and most of all, I’m for love –the kind you need and want from the people who give it best.

 

I stand for Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. I am against mocking people for believing in God and I am against mocking people for not believing in God.

 

I believe in deep quiet, loons, and swimming with horses, which I tried once at Camp Lake Hubert the summer I was 15– it felt like flying. I believe in an Afterlife … not harps and fluffy white clouds so much as a clarity, an understanding, a lifting of all the veils that make us think our stubborn, self-destructive thoughts. I am for a Heaven that reconciles my vision and God’s, a big explanation, God saying “this is why and this is why and this is why.”

 

I’m for Grandma Betty, who kept rosaries in her desk and fed me soft, pillowy doughnuts rolled in sugar on Sunday mornings after Mass. I’m for the tiny, Technicolor strawberries she grew in her garden, which I picked and brought to my dad and grandpa in a metal pail, one by one.

 

I am for Grandpa Skluzacek, whose pickup truck smelled of wood shavings, tobacco, and the fish he caught alone in secret lakes and I am for Grandpa Thacher, who took me to get stitches on my chin when I was 4 and told everyone how brave I was when I wasn’t.

 

Camp Lake Hubert

 

I am pro-cabin, pro-camp, pro-canoe. I’m pro-Constance, who meets me at the back fence now and then to exchange lemons, eggs, sour cherries, solidarity. I’m for the teary girl I saw at the elementary school last October, willing herself down the hall. I was her once. I am pro-aloneness, anti-loneliness.

 

I am in favor of the simple, peaceful Lonsdale cemetery where my dad and other members of my family are buried, but against all the reasons it’s full. I am in favor of tough old ladies and soft old men and I am all in for Minnesota. I believe in flannel sheets, down comforters with the windows cracked, the romance of a December wedding. I would relive mine a thousand times if I could … I probably have.

 

Yes to my dad and stepmom, who honored me by dying when I was right there in the room and yes to my mom and stepdad, who spared me that sorrow. No to a crystal ball, though I badly want one. No because I would use it irresponsibly.

 

I swear by birthday cake for breakfast and I swear by my mom, who taught herself the Club Med line dance with a tape she bought at the gift shop and practiced in our living room until it was perfect. I am passionately pro-nerd.

 

43rd birthday cake for Brian 2015

 

No to mealy apples, no to fake vanilla, and no to both phone and in-person solicitation. Yes to bread, GramBea’s rice pudding, lake swimming, being up late at night. Yes to wilderness and protecting it.

 

I believe in the peonies my dad grew and brought to my house in vases each spring; the Eames chair where I sat in his lap when I was five, watching Little House on the Prairie on Monday nights; I believe in the bronze stars and purple heart he brought back from Viet Nam. I believe in anyone brave enough and wise enough to choose tenderness.

 

I’m for the brilliant nurse who helped me bathe my toddler at Children’s Hospital when she had wires glued to her scalp and I’m for the brilliant neurosurgeon who performed her brain surgery at Mayo when she was three years old. I’m against staying in the hospital with your child alone – don’t do it.

 

Sweet Brian and Carolinbe post EEG

 

I am for raising yourself as you raise your kids, I am for Dad, who worked at my high school and would make a convincing camel face for anyone who asked and I am for Mom, who called me Lamby and Lovebug right up until she died when I was 41.

 

Yes to GramBea playing piano out on her four-season porch as I was coming in from school, yes to the beautiful connection between my children, which is what I have always hoped for. Yes to the way my dad and his sister would laugh together in a kind of harmony and yes to letting your kids see you cry. No to anyone who makes you feel like you’re crazy for feeling too much.

 

Yes to reminding people they are not alone – including myself. Yes to growing up together, to people who are afraid but keep trying anyway.

 

Yes to you, my friends from long ago and far away and yes to you, my friends from always. Yes to everyone who is here now and yes to those who couldn’t stick around for one reason or another.

 

I stand for you.
I stand for me.
I am for you and me.

 

Bridesmaids 121199

Fear

Deep Autumn 2013
© 2016 Marta C Drew

 

I’m 5 and 1/2, so I can walk to Betsy’s by myself. Two blocks on 55th, Wooddale to Oaklawn, then take a left. I know right away if he’s there –a big black dog whose people don’t keep him on a leash. The only other dogs I’ve met up until now are Betsy’s Scotties, so I don’t know breeds. If I had to guess? Werewolf. Maybe bear.

 

My uncaring mother is drinking Tab and doing a crossword back at the house. She’s off the hook: it’s 1978. Driving your almost-6-year-old three blocks so she doesn’t have to experience any discomfort or anxiety won’t be in fashion for another 20 years.

 

Sometimes the dog is outside, sometimes he isn’t. Not knowing is the worst part. Am I safe today? Will he watch me from the driveway, too stuffed with another neighborhood child to bother with me? Will he chase me all the way to 54th Street, which I’m not allowed to cross until Mrs. Burritt is supervising? I never know. Every trip is a hero’s journey.

 

But within a few years, the dog is the least of my problems. Mean-spirited kids love to see me cry. I flip out of my innertube one summer into the Apple River, get caught under the rapids, and glimpse Death skulking along the banks. Sometimes my dad doesn’t answer the phone and I ride my bike to his house from my mom’s to make sure he is not lying twisted at the foot of the stairs. For a long time, I have a permanent stomachache.

 

Fear is so familiar, such a lifelong companion of mine, I wonder if I would recognize myself without it.  It’s a flame I carry from place to place, from year to year. I protect that flame, I nurture it. I don’t want to be caught unprepared.

 

There are no rules in this life …nothing I can perceive to govern us. We the People cannot govern us; God and Jesus, as good as They are, cannot govern us. We are ungovernable as long as we are this afraid. We can’t count on safety and we’re obsessed with it. Take your little peanut out of his NASA-grade carseat, wrap him in layers to maintain the proper body temperature, set him so gently in the grocery cart at Whole Foods with a cover over the handle so he doesn’t catch something from the other organic babies. Feed him quinoa, veggies from your CSA, no gluten or sugar. He can still get cancer, we all know it.

 

As long as I keep loving people –and I insist– there will always be more loss.

 

I have spent nights with my child at hospitals, I have sent her into brain surgery. How did I do that, being who I am?  I remember the drive down to Mayo in the early-morning darkness. The ancient trees, who have seen everything, stood sentinel along the highway. The IV insertion was the usual hell with a toddler –tiny veins, deep breaths. When the anesthesiologist carried our little daughter out of the nurses’ station, my husband and I sat on vinyl chairs behind a thin curtain and cried like children.

 

Ten hours later, the surgeon crossed the waiting room with miraculous news: our baby’s tumor had peeled neatly away from the healthy part of her brain like an orange. I could show you exactly where I was standing, back by the vending machines, when I called my mom, weeping with relief, to give her the news. So much relief … and still so much fear, because I knew: this pain would not immunize me.

 

And it didn’t, or at least not for long. My mother, the one I called first after my daughter’s surgery, my invincible parent, developed a brain tumor too and hers killed her.  Three years later, my dad succumbed to pancreatic cancer. As long as I keep loving people –and I insist — there will always be more loss.

 

It’s fair to be afraid, there’s plenty of good reason. I’m not afraid of dogs anymore, but other fears have replaced them: scoundrels in Washington, the tenuousness of human relationships, the fragility and the power contained in a single cell. I am afraid of political fault lines through families and old friendships, my penchant for dark thinking, attack on all fronts. I am afraid of losing my sight or having a heart attack or getting cancer when I have a lot of parenting left to do. I am afraid my voice isn’t as strong and clear as I would like it to be, that I give in where I should fight and fight where I should give in. This is not an exhaustive list.

 

It’s so tempting, isn’t it, to dissolve into this anxiety, to turn back and run home. It’s tempting to crouch on your side of the wall, arranging and engineering the trivial while ignoring the essential: there has never been and never will be an assurance of safety. I want us all to radically accept that so we can take reasonable measures and let the rest go. So we can be there for each other, all of us humans. Our connection has always been our best protection.

 

At some point, there is so much to be afraid of that there is nothing to be afraid of and then you can go anywhere you want, ready or not. The flame I have carried from year to year, place to place, which I believed was fear, isn’t fear. Fear is the not knowing, the threat, the separation. Fear is the protections I have always counted on now ebbing away. The flame …is something else. Resilience? Defiance? I don’t know, but I’m still here.

 

Candle in the Window
© 2016 Marta C Drew

Valentine

 

An excerpt from a letter sent home from school with my four-year-old the other day:

 

“Dear Parent …This month, the Otters class will be talking about being kind, sharing, doing good for others, and being a good friend. If your child would like to participate in an optional Valentine exchange, we will help your child distribute these signs of friendship.”

 

Loath as I am to criticize the angels willing to civilize my preschooler while I roam around the Galleria or play Tetris in my underwear, they’re doing justice to neither the bracing security of friendship nor the euphoric calamity of romantic love by suggesting that Valentines are an expression of the former. True Valentines are dangerous shots in the dark, vibrating with the risk required to send them.

 

Here’s what the letter should have said:

 

“Dear Parent… This month, the Otters class will be talking about the violent pagan and Christian origins of Valentine’s Day, examining how ritual sacrifice and martyrdom are still featured in modern Valentine’s Day customs. If your child would like to participate in a voluntary reenactment of the scene in Say Anything where John Cusack stands outside Ione Skye’s window with a boom box while she silently rejects him, we will help your child rehearse and perform both parts.”

 

I picture tiny boys in trench coats standing in the snow outside the classroom window next to a Big Wheel or a Lightning McQueen car, holding up an iPod docking station blaring “In Your Eyes.” Inside, the girls take turns lying on cots, crying prettily because Daddy doesn’t approve. Then the boys come in and cry on the cots and the girls go outside in the trench coats with the docking stations –it’s 2012 after all.

 

True Valentines are dangerous shots in the dark, vibrating with the risk required to send them.

If we’re really going to commit to the desperate love theme (of which this particular mother wholly approves), then snacks throughout February should be tiny, watery salads; whole pints of Ben and Jerry’s; Diet Coke and rice cakes; giant bags of Cheetos; 2-liters of Mountain Dew chugged straight from the bottle. Art projects: mix tapes and Sharpie tattoos. P.E: listless wandering.  Music: humming U2’s “Love is Blindness” on their backs with the lights out.

 

Finally, the Valentine exchange: line them up, have them hand each other carefully-made cards covered in Fancy Nancy or Star Wars stickers, delicately scented with baby shampoo, Play-doh, mud, grilled cheese, canned frosting.* In response, some will say thank you, some say no thank you, some say nothing, some say too much, some give a hug, some give a mean punch. Some give a pen.

 

Those teachers might as well stick with teaching everyone how to be a good friend. Lord knows we hard-core Romantics need LOTS of those.

 

To send a real Valentine, you need both a risk and the bold willingness to take it. Children cannot yet perceive the risk and adults perceive too much risk to maintain the bold willingness.None of us understand the value of love until life teaches us what it costs to win it and what it costs to lose it.

 

When we say “be my Valentine,” that means please honor the original sacrifice, be willing as Saint Valentine was to risk everything for love.

 

Valentine’s Day is not merely a celebration of love; it is a celebration of the chances we humans will take to capture and keep it. The first Saint Valentine was a priest who defied King Claudius by continuing to marry couples even after the king had banned the practice (he wanted only single men for his army; married men kept defecting to be with their sweethearts). For this, Saint Valentine was sentenced to death.

 

One version of the story describes Saint Valentine being visited  in his cell by the couples he married, who passed him notes and flowers to express their gratitude. Another version suggests he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter and gave her a note: “from your Valentine.” Either way, he died for love. When we give someone a Valentine, we’re supposed to mean it. When we say “be my Valentine,” that means please honor the original sacrifice, be willing as Saint Valentine was to risk everything for love. Preschoolers won’t do that –self-preservation is still too strong in them.

 

But someday they will. Someday their hearts and minds and bodies will be electrified with the hope and longing and fear and desperation of a love that’s finally worth the risk of embarrassment or judgement or loss. When it no longer feels optional, then they will be ready to give a real Valentine and be one.

 

Whatever they get in return for the hearts they offer–a note of gratitude, a boy in the yard, silent rejection– they will understand that it doesn’t matter. The life of  a Valentine–whether long or brief, free or imprisoned –is always the same: risk more, risk again –defy the king, take shots in the dark, welcome the euphoric calamity, die again and again for love.

 

*thank you to Rachael Soesbe Vopatek, Lisa Corchran Hake, Wendy Legg Gilbertson, and Penny Hedquist Hanson for remembering which scents would be most appealing to preschool boys –it’s been a while for me 😉