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

Hello, Old Friend

Cinnamon hearts


Hello, Old Friend. I’ve missed you.


I am returning (I believe, I hope) from a long absence. I buried my dad in late June, three years after my mom died, and ever since I have felt like my moorings are slipping. There are still plenty of people who love me and whom I love in equal measure, there are still places I want to see or return to, still recipes I want to try and books I want to read. I don’t feel lost or permanently broken – just lonelier and a little bit beaten up. I miss belonging and connection, so here I am, writing to You.


I spent about a year and a half writing an essay about my time working at a greenhouse outside of Cleveland. I think I have rewritten it 20 or 30 times, submitted it to 15 literary magazines, and been rejected by 50. That’s not true of course, because the math doesn’t work out, but it feels true. Rejection always feels bigger than my efforts, why is that? It shouldn’t.


Anyway, if you’re a writer (or even if you’re not), you’re rolling your eyes and telling me I haven’t even begun to try. You’re telling me I have to keep going and send my essay out again. You’re talking to your screen about how many times very famous writers sent out their manuscripts before someone finally accepted them, published them, made them famous, and produced movies or built amusement parks in honor of their books.


And yeah, I know, I’ve heard those stories too, but nobody is going to ride an orchid-themed roller coaster.


So with love,

I say this:

Shut up.


I am retiring (for now) from my failed career in literary-magazine-writing. In fact, I may bake myself a retirement cake, since I really like cake and happen to be a fairly excellent baker. See? I have plenty of confidence. Self-doubt is not the problem; rattling a locked door is the problem. I do that a lot, especially with people, but we can talk more about that later. Or not. Let’s not.


These might be letters, not essays. They might be essays, not letters. I don’t know, we’ll see. My therapist has retired early – a decision for which I am trying hard not to take personal responsibility—so I am all yours. I am trying to stop trying so hard to be “writerly” so I can enjoy writing again. I am trying to let go of writing for redemption and start writing for connection. That is all more difficult for me than it should be, but I intend to try.


I want to feel better, braver, more hopeful than I currently do. I’m guessing I’m not the only one, which is why I am sending this out into the shrieking chaos of the Internet. Write back if you feel like it. If you don’t or can’t right now, I’ll keep writing to You anyway. I heal by healing –we all do.


Love and solidarity,


Canoe Bay Organic Garden Summer 2015


Faith is a discipline –difficult and often boring. I ask for what I want –opportunity, love, rescue, relief — and settle in to wait for an answer. It’s not so bad at first. Maybe I play a little Tetris Battle or Bejeweled Blitz on the computer, maybe I spend a weekend watching the weird plastic Food Network Barbie robots cook pasta and bake cakes everyone knows they would never really eat in real life (bitches). Maybe I have a good cry, eat a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, write about it, take a nap.


At some point during my wait, I usually go into the kitchen where the acoustics are particularly good (I really will miss that when we leave this house) and sing all the Paul Simon songs I know, which is most of them. Sometimes I change the lyrics a little bit –I’m good at rhythm and language –and sometimes I experiment with harmony. Sometimes I push my voice as far as it will go (which is not far at all) and sometimes I keep it soft. I never let anyone see or hear me –there are some truly horrible notes and some rather crass language; Paul Simon fans might be genuinely offended. I bet Paul himself would kind of love it though. As an artist, you want to know your work lives and breathes in other people, kind of like an organ donation.


While I wait, I try to tell myself that God heard me and is processing my request. I picture bored angels in a Heavenly government office building, drinking lukewarm coffee and gnawing on bagels –they’re the ones who just barely made it in (I’ll be one of them someday if I’m lucky). At about this point, all of my conflicting spiritual training –both formal and self-taught– starts echoing in my head:


Can I do a little feng-shui to help the cause here, or is that too witchy? Should I pray directly to the little plastic statue of Saint Joseph that I ordered from Amazon and buried upside down in my back yard to help me sell this house or is that considered idolatry? Since praying to saints is a Catholic thing to do, would it help to make the sign of the cross first? Or would that be frowned upon since I’m more of a Congregationalist now? Does my spotty church attendance count against me when I ask for help? Should I be bothering God with my suburban real estate request when so many of His people are crying out to Him in loneliness, starvation, poverty, illness? I don’t have the right to ask for this …I already got to keep Caroline.


As an artist, you want to know your work lives and breathes in other people, kind of like an organ donation.


It would help if I knew God better. This is not from lack of trying –I talk to Him all the time. I just never know how to decode the answers. Here, again, my convoluted religious history gets in the way; I have pictured everyone from Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia to Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino to Chow Yun Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.Which version is correct? Nobody knows. God could really be much more like Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia. That would actually make all kinds of sense.


But I don’t know…I don’t know a whole lot about who I’m talking to and I don’t know how He sees me. I HOPE He likes me (I believe He loves me) and I HOPE He sees me trying to do the right thing, the loving thing, the brave thing, but I don’t know. I have a hard time forgiving myself for my mistakes, so I can’t ever really believe others are willing to forgive me either. Especially God, who can read my judgy, dirty, arrogant mind and my fearful, desperate, jealous heart.


My dad, who tried valiantly for at least the first 15 years of my life to shape me into a decent Catholic (but ultimately failed) was the one to tell me about the Saint Joseph statue thing. I told him I’d think about it and then called him a couple of days later to let him know I had ordered one. “I figure why not?” I said.


“Well it’s not about asking ‘why not,’ Dear,” he said in his I-love-you-but-you’re-SO-WRONG voice. “It’s about having some faith, asking for help, believing you’re worthy of that help.”


“That’s hard for me,” I said, surprised and irritated that I suddenly felt like crying (a mysteriously common development when I’m talking to my dad). “‘Dear Heavenly Father, please grant me a comfortable and tasteful house with a soaking tub in the master suite, a screened porch, and double ovens. Amen.’ I can’t pray for that. I can’t stand people who pray for that.”


“You know that’s not what you’re praying for, Marta,” my dad said softly. “There’s nothing shallow about this request. You’re praying for relief –for your whole family– from all that has happened to you while you’ve been living in that house. Don’t you want your children to ask you for help when they need it? Of course you do –you don’t ask yourself if they deserve it, you just help. God wants you to ask. He wants you to be happy.”


I have a hard time forgiving myself for my mistakes, so I can’t ever really believe others are willing to forgive me either. Especially God, who can read my judgy, dirty, arrogant mind and my fearful, desperate, jealous heart.


Believing that is where faith begins for me, where discipline comes in. My happiness has always seemed beside the point in the same way that the Mona Lisa’s happiness seems beside the point. I have faith in God, I believe He’s always there, listening and watching, and I believe he has created a beautiful, heartbreaking, playful, ultimately triumphant, and consistently meaningful life for me. He is the original Artist. I have faith that I’ll get my opportunities, my love, my rescues and relief –sometimes just the way I ask for them and sometimes not. I have faith that things will always change and that I will be able to endure the changes.


But I have a hard time believing I’m allowed to make changes or ask for them myself. I don’t know where this particular spiritual belief comes from –this idea that my life is a painting or a play or a song God wrote and which nobody should try to alter. It may be more of an artistic belief than a religious one. Obviously I change God’s masterpiece all the time with my selfishness or my weakness or my doubts, but my intention is always to restore the original work –return to the original story or melody. I’M not supposed to muck it up with my shallow human desires. Who walks up to a Picasso or a Wyeth with a paintbrush and some new ideas?


Of course this painting is of ME, this play is written for ME, the song is about ME; why wouldn’t I add my own voice to it? If I believe Paul Simon would get a kick out of the liberties I take with his work, why can’t I believe God would welcome my experiments with His? Why can’t I believe that He wants me to paint my own portrait, write my own story, sing my own song?


He does. He expects this of me. He has faith in me.



Chapel Path II


Henry’s prayer the other night:

“Dear God, thank you for my family and my friends…and my dead fish, who really did live with us for a long time [two years]. Please help the people who have a hard time seeing their blessings…even me, really.”


Sometimes it takes a nine-year-old (though his soul is so much older) to remind a rather crabby, complainy, self-pitying suburban Mama to be more grateful. Of course that would be ever-so-much easier if I didn’t have to clean up so much poop, but the lesson is still a good one.


We have had  at least 15 showings since our house went on the market and each one takes years off my life.  The laundry is done every day, the beds are made every day, I vacuum and dust and clean the glass every day. It’s unnatural.  I don’t think I’ve cooked a meal that really tastes like anything for over a month, lest the scent of garlic or spices linger and offend the delicate senses of a potential buyer. I caught Lizzie snoozing on the floor in her room the other day and when I asked her why she wasn’t resting on her bed, she said “I didn’t want to make any lumps.”

She’s four.


So I’m sure you understand why I want the whole shit show over with. Last night I thought it might be –there was a second showing scheduled from 7:00 to 8:00. I prepped the hell out of this place –dusted, vacuumed, threw the windows open, placed a big gorgeous hydrangea plant in the dining room to make it look like a plant could actually survive in there (it couldn’t), polished and yelled at my husband and disinfected and shrieked at my children and smoothed and cursed the assholes who hadn’t bought our house yet and shined and ranted about all the tantrum-throwing, women-hating jackasses poisoning our culture lately until the whole place looked gorgeous and I looked like Charlize Theron in Monster.


Sometimes it takes a nine-year-old (though his soul is so much older) to remind a rather crabby, complainy, self-pitying suburban Mama to be more grateful.


Then I went over to my mom’s house to drink and eat dinner. And wait. And drink. And do you want to know what those seven-o-clock-on-a-fucking-Sunday-scheduling assholes did? They chose someone else’s house to buy. Assholes. I hate them. Wait, what was I writing about? Oh yes…gratitude. And blessings.


I can acknowledge that I’m one of the people Henry is praying for. Well, me and the tantrum-throwing, women-hating jackasses –they can’t see their blessings either. I know blessings are a popular idea right now –rain is supposed to be a blessing, money and  newborn babies and starry nights and finding what you thought you lost are all supposed to be blessings –but I don’t think blessings are objects or experiences or even people.


I think blessings are the divine gifts –love, faith, hope, charity, gratitude, humility– that transform and give meaning to objects and experiences and relationships. They’re not really something you see, they’re a way of seeing, they are the light itself. Blessings are like flashlights, so no wonder they’re so easy to lose track of –who ever remembers where they left the stupid thing last time they used it? It’s easier to go out and get a new one than find the one you misplaced, except there’s really only one flashlight in everyone’s life. You ever noticed that? No matter which one I’m using, it shines the same light, made up of all the places and objects and people I’ve ever illuminated with every flashlight I’ve ever used. Flashlights, like all light, like all blessings, have shared memory.


Every time I turn on the blue Maglite we keep in our laundry room (I think), I see every path and field and dock and cabin at Camp Lake Hubert with it, every house I’ve ever lived in, every campsite in the Boundary Waters, every inch of the dark road to and from our cabins at Family Camp that I’ve walked with every one of my cousins at some point or another, the unfamiliar woods I traveled through with Mary last September when we went to art camp.


I think blessings are the divine gifts –love, faith, hope, charity, gratitude, humility– that transform and give meaning to objects and experiences and relationships.


It doesn’t matter that I didn’t have the blue Maglite then; it’s the light that remembers. That’s how blessings are –they connect you to your memories, your experiences, the places and people who matter most, and then connect them to each other.  “Seeing your blessings” isn’t really accurate; blessings are the light by which we see everything else. The term should be “seeing WITH blessings” and it’s a discipline, keeping track of that light and remembering to bring it with you.


I know this. I know that if I consistently shine faith and love and gratitude on these tense weeks, then I’ll be able to wander around the haunted house I’m trying to sell and see more than the shadows and ghosts.  I’ll see GramBea, my mom, my aunts and girl cousins sitting around my kitchen table eating brunch the day after Christmas; Brian and Caroline snuggled on the couch after one of Caroline’s EEGs, the glue still in her hair, a tender, slightly broken-hearted but still optimistic expression on her daddy’s face (he was right); Henry tucked into his parents’ big bed, a little sister on each side, reading them a book and asking thoughtful little questions (“what’s that? Yes, that’s cheese. Good! What color is the cheese?”); my dad playing tickle spider with my kids by the front door; Julie doing my dishes, helping me clean up, holding me on the laundry room floor when I had just come back from Kyle’s memorial service.


I’ll see all of that with the same light that comes from Camp Lake Hubert and Family Camp and all the other places I’ve called home and all the people who inhabited those places.  And I’ll see that even this dark house has given me some new light to bring with me, by which to see the next one.


It Gets Better


Are you out there? Are you listening to me? Listen to me when I tell you it gets better. Listen to me when I tell you I know what it’s like to have a permanent stomachache for months –YEARS– because someone is bullying you, because every day at school or work or home or all three is an anxiety dream. Are you good enough? Are you smart or beautiful or successful or popular or thin enough? You suspect you’re not.


But you ARE.


You wouldn’t believe some of the people I know who have felt this way, especially in junior high and high school. People with gorgeous, powerful voices; people with perception and insight; people who can understand complex math equations; people who sing opera; people who are brave enough to keep falling in love; people who are creative and sensitive and brilliant. People like you.


You deserve love and support and freedom. You will have those things. You will.


It gets better. Every year that passes means knowing more, understanding more, having more power over your own life. You’re going to learn who’s worth listening to, you’re going to learn who’s worth fighting for, you’re going to learn who’s worthy of your love. You’re going to learn that one of those people is you. Being bullied is an awful hell; nobody deserves it. You don’t deserve it. You deserve love and support and freedom. You will have those things. You will.


For now, listen to music and paint your paintings or write your stories or build your race car. Feel your loneliness, acknowledge it, find a safe place to be angry about it, then cry and release it. Pour it into your dance or your songwriting or your running or biking. Use it as fuel to propel you forward, away from any belief that your current loneliness defines you. It doesn’t. Your ability to love defines you. Your willingness to love defines you –and it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight or can’t decide. The world needs your kind of love –it’s important, so stick around. It gets better.