Dear God: A Few Questions

 

Pamela Park Sunrise
© 2015 Marta C Drew

Dear God,

Why, when I am supposed to have it so easy, has my life felt so hard in recent years?

 

There’s a French saying by someone — I don’t remember who, I saw it on Pinterest– that translates to “I hear your voice in all the world’s noise.” I wish I could hear yours. Could you talk a little louder? You probably feel like you are yelling at us all the time, but you can’t imagine how loud it is down here. Maybe I should remember that when I’m dealing with my own kids.

 

Are you pretty fed up with everyone on Earth right now? I picture you in your sunny offices, dogs and children playing right outside your window, watching the news and shaking your head:

“No, my loves,” you might say (I hear it in an Irish accent for some reason I can’t explain).  “That’s not what I meant. You’re focusing on the wrong things.” You probably say that about me all the time. I say it about me too, if it helps to know that.

 

What am I supposed to be doing that I’m not doing?

 

Where is my mom? Is she with you? With me? Already reborn as the eagle I keep seeing in the park? I wish I could talk to her about how it feels to be here without her. It’s like living through a Minnesota winter without a storm door sometimes. Will you tell her I said that? People behaved a lot better when she was here.

 

How come you made me an only child and a writer and a romantic and uber-sensitive? That seems mean-spirited.

 

Are you pretty fed up with everyone on Earth right now?

 

Do I have a guardian angel? Is it my hairstylist? I think it is. I have a fantasy that when I die (decades from now, I hope), he will meet me wherever I land and explain everything to me. Of course I would love if you did it, but I assume you’re busy.

 

Did you write my whole life before I started living it or was it just a loose outline? I like the outline idea, because then we’re writing it together. Either way, it’s beautiful. Thank you.

 

Do you really like Donald Trump? I know he’s one of your children and everything, same as me, but he’s such a dick.

 

How can I be grateful for all of the material stuff I have when I feel so poisoned by it? How much am I supposed to share? It never feels like enough. Would people stop treating me like I won the lottery if my name were on the paychecks with Brian’s? It should be.

 

Why isn’t the publishing world more of a meritocracy? Did you know that Lauren Conrad from “The Hills” wrote a novel and it got PUBLISHED? And have you read Fifty Shades of Gray? Idiotic. I mean, come on.

 

Garden Gate Canoe Bay Summer 2015
© 2015 Marta C Drew

 

Thank you for artists like Meryl Streep, Chef Thomas Keller, Mary Oliver, and Patty Griffin. Are they part of your personal staff? Maybe down here on Earth as artists in residence? They inspire me every time I see their work. Wow.

 

Why is it that all the wrong people feel ashamed?

 

Do you love the Kardashians more than you love the rest of us? There’s no reason they should be doing this well.

 

Why do you put people in families together who don’t want to be in families together?

 

Why is it so hard to believe that all I have to do is say (and be) sorry and you’ll forgive me? I make a lot of the same wretched mistakes over and over again — do you really believe me when I keep apologizing for the same thing ? I don’t know if I believe me sometimes. Am I apologizing for all the wrong stuff? I worry about that.

 

Why do some friends come on strong with attention and then retreat into radio silence with no discernible warning?

 

Are you really threatened by astrology and feng-shui and all of that stuff? I really can’t imagine why you would be.

 

What is your favorite spot on earth? Mine is Lake Hubert, but you probably already knew that.

 

Why do some friends come on strong with attention and then retreat into radio silence with no discernible warning? Am I supposed to keep chasing them? For how long should I do that before I let them go? I feel like you’ve given me more than my share of those, but maybe you’re trying to show me something. So what is it?

 

Why do you keep reminding me about people I’m trying to forget?

 

What’s the most important thing to get right about raising my kids? What do I need to change to get it right? Please don’t tell me to read any parenting books — they’re full of fear-mongering and sensationalist bullshit (see question regarding publishing).

 

After all these years of loss and calamity and anxiety, how do I make my faith stronger than my fear? I trust you, I really do … I know you will walk me through anything.  But what’s the next “anything” going to be? Can you help me stop trying to guess?

 

Can I learn to enjoy what and who remains in my life and let the rest go, at least for now? Will I ever stop believing the mean lies I tell myself? Will I ever stop begging for understanding from careless people? Will you help me banish my dark thoughts about losing everyone?

Please help me remember that even if that happened –even if the very worst happened and I lost everyone and everything I love– I still wouldn’t be alone. I would have You.

 

And you have me, listening for your voice in all the world’s noise.

Amen.

dock on Squam Lake 091611
© 2015 Marta C Drew

Snow Globe

 

Snow Globe photo
© 2015 Marta C Drew

 

Though usually a softy — especially with me– my dad was strict about church. We went every Sunday –no exceptions. Of course I tried to get out of it:

 

” I feel sick.”

“Church will make you feel better. Get dressed and brush your teeth. Let’s go.”

 

So we drove to Mass at Most Holy Trinity in my dad’s 1978 wood-paneled Mercury station wagon. In the early years, Dad let me bring books or dolls or crayons, maybe assuming I would absorb  the ritual even if I wasn’t ready to receive the message. I entertained myself back behind the pews under the not-particularly-watchful eyes of the ushers while my dad did the reading or presented the gifts or assisted with Communion.  Mass had been so thoroughly absorbed into my dad’s consciousness that it felt like another language he spoke, another mode of expression, like Czech or carpentry.

 

I didn’t understand Mass — I still don’t– but I sensed what it meant to him and why he wanted to include me in it despite my resistance. He was inviting me into a ritual he had known all his life, a collection of prayers, songs and movements he carried in his veins and muscles through everything. That ritual, compact enough to keep with him even through the hell of Viet Nam, was still powerful enough to bring him all the way home. It wasn’t the only thing that protected him, but it was the essential thing. He wanted me to be protected too.

 

Mass had been so thoroughly absorbed into my dad’s consciousness that it felt like another language he spoke, another mode of expression, like Czech or carpentry.

 

Since my parents were (very) divorced, they divided my time right down the middle, including Christmas. Mom got Christmas Day for the big, loud family dinner at Grandma and Grandpa Thacher’s house. Dad got Christmas Eve, when we took the snowy, rural drive down to Lonsdale to visit Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek. As the reliable Merc traced the dark, frozen farm roads it knew by heart, Dad and I listened to “Blue Christmas” and “Mele Kalikimaka” on the radio. Alone but not lonely, connected but allowed our own thoughts, we made that trip every year. When I think of it, I picture us in a snow globe.

 

The rituals I shared with my dad always made me feel like that  … as if I were inhabiting a tiny, enchanted, impenetrable space while he held the world at bay for me. I imagine that’s what God does for him during Mass.

 

I struggled under a lot of fear and anxiety when I was a little girl — I still do. I was anxious about what the mean kids at school would do next, I was afraid my dad would die and there would be nobody left to understand me. I worried about tornadoes and bees and big dogs. My head buzzed from the  fear of doing something embarrassing  –something nobody would ever let me forget– like the time I accidentally left the blinds open while I was going to the bathroom at the neighbors’ house. All the kids on my block were playing street hockey in the driveway that day.

 

My adult self knows they couldn’t have seen anything, but my child self assumed they saw everything. Please please please don’t talk about that,  I prayed every time someone mentioned hockey or bathrooms or peeing or the neighborhood or windows or driveways or playing or stopping or any of the kids who lived in that house or any of the kids who lived nearby. Or their parents. Or anything. Please don’t bring it up. Sometimes my prayers worked, sometimes they didn’t.

 

“Hey, do you remember that time Mar-duh went to the bathroom with the window open? Mar-duh, do you remember? That was so funny! I can’t believe you did that. Why didn’t you close the shade? Did anyone see your butt? Gross! That’s so gross! Hahaha!”

 

I hated the way they said my name, I hated that I had made such an expensive mistake, I hated every minute of those elementary school years. I concentrated on neither laughing nor crying — just enduring, waiting. I suppose that was a kind of ritual too, learning how to hold the world at bay for myself, even if the space I was inhabiting didn’t feel enchanted or impenetrable.

 

Childhood itself is a ritual, imposed on all of us: the unruly world intrudes on our safety and comfort and the adults who love us push it away –over and over again– until we are old enough and brave enough to push the adults away, invite the world in for ourselves, run out to meet it, get lost in it, find our way back again. The world is never safe. We eventually see that’s the beauty of it.

 

The world is never safe. We eventually see that’s the beauty of it.

 

When I was fifteen, I refused to go to church anymore. I had tried to connect with Mass all year during my Confirmation classes, but I couldn’t find my way in.  My dad and I had one of our very rare fights about it.

 

“It feels dishonest!” I cried. “All I do is sit there and think about boys!”

“I daydream too, Marta,” my dad said back. “What matters is that you go to church.”

 

My mom laughed when I told her what he had said, adding it to her case against organized religion in general and Catholicism in particular. She heard my dad’s argument as evidence that his faith was only a meaningless habit.

 

My mother was a brilliant, perceptive woman, but she was wrong about that. He was telling me that absorbing the ritual matters, even if we aren’t ready to receive the message. The message is enormous — the questions are enormous — the fear is enormous. It takes a lifetime just to sit with all of that, let alone reconcile it. Every time we allow ourselves to get lost in the world, the questions, the message, even our doubt, we have to find our way back. Back to what?

 

My dad finds his way back to Mass. I still can’t get there, but I have the ritual he gave me. I step into the snow globe, into my dad’s old Mercury station wagon, and trace the old roads I know by heart –alone but not lonely, connected but allowed my own thoughts …not safe, but protected.

 

Snowy Road and Trees
© 2015 Marta C Drew

Home: A Collection

 

Red House First Snow 110613
© 2015 Marta C Drew

 

If what my dad says is true, I descend from a band of traveling, singing figure skaters. I imagine them –dark-eyed and wild-haired– wandering with their skates and bright scarves through dark Bohemian forests into the gracious little towns where they stopped to make their living. According to my dad they were fed and welcomed. Maybe once, as she carved loops and circles on the frozen lake, one of my ancestors locked eyes with a local carpenter and thought about him every day for the rest of her life. Maybe another dreamed of staying in one of those towns for months or years. Still, my ancestors didn’t make their home in the towns, they made it by traveling together. Home was on the road and on the ice and in their voices. Home was their togetherness.

 

From second grade through high school, I moved back and forth every Monday between my mom’s place and my dad’s. I took the bus to GramBea and Grandpa Thacher’s house after school once a week, I spent four or five days in Lonsdale with Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek a few times each year, I spent a month every summer at Camp Lake Hubert. When I think of home, I don’t think of a single place. Home is something I have collected.

 

Mama's Cranberry Bread 112614
© 2015 Marta C Drew

 

My mom and step-dad believed in orphan Thanksgivings. They invited all of their friends who didn’t have family in town and made a different kind of turkey and stuffing every year. I could smell onions, carrots, and celery sautéing in butter as I came downstairs Thanksgiving morning. Before the turkey went into the oven, Mom and I made cranberry quick bread –lemon and pumpkin too, if we had the time.

 

As the sun went down around 4:30, Steve built a fire, Mom and I set the tables, and friends started arriving. They brought wild rice casseroles, garlic mashed potatoes, cranberries with orange zest, sweet potatoes with pecans and brown sugar, apple tarts and pumpkin pies. We brought out the turkey and stuffing, the breads we had made and bottles of wine, and stayed at the table for hours. Sometimes we got lucky and it began to snow out on the marsh while we ate. As everyone left, full and connected, the woodsmoke curled up to the starry sky.

 

My time with Dad was more private, even secluded. The December after our second attempt at family had failed, my dad and I found ourselves alone again in the house on Malibu Drive. I was sixteen. My stepmother and her two daughters had left without a word one weekend when I was with my mom. I was fine with it. I remember bubble lights on the tree, the sharp, blank smell of snow. Each night, when my dad had had enough time alone in his shop and I was done with homework, we sat together in the family room. He lounged in his black Eames chair, looking out at the deck he had built with his own hands a few years before. I lay on my stomach on the floor, drawing or dreaming or writing (bad) poetry.  We didn’t talk … we didn’t need to. As Walt Whitman said: “we were together. I forget the rest.”

 

When I think of home, I don’t think of a single place. Home is something I have collected.

 

When Mom had orchestra or Guthrie Theater tickets and Dad had to chaperone a high school hockey game, I took the bus after school with my cousin Jessica to  GramBea and Grandpa Thacher’s house on Cooper Avenue. Jess and I slept downstairs in twin beds with turned wooden posts and yellow quilts. Before we lay down, we rose high on our knees in bed, facing the pillow and pulling the covers around our shoulders like capes. Grandma and Grandpa were frugal and let the house get chilly at night from October through April. Clutching the wad of blankets at our chests, we fell down onto our pillows, turning just our cheeks to face each other in the dark.

 

Once GramBea had kissed us good night, we played games in stage whispers. Our favorite involved taking turns creating elaborate configurations with our hands and trying to copy the other’s exactly. Lying in the darkness, only a narrow stripe of golden light  at the door to our room, we twisted and laced our fingers in intricate forms.

 

“Can you do this?”

 

Jessica made an attempt, seeing neither her own hands nor mine in the other bed. “Like this?”

 

“No, like this.” We could never do it right and we never would– it didn’t matter. What mattered was hearing another voice in the dark.

 

I need a solid place, a single place, to feed and welcome those who pass through and decide to stay.

 

Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek’s house was about an hour south of my house, so when I visited them I stayed for several days at a time. My memories of that house are all taste and scent.  Grandma Betty fed me Malt-o-Meal or scrambled eggs in her basement kitchen while she did laundry and made filling for kolachkes. When I was finished eating, she tied an apron two or three times around my waist. Then she cut dozens of squares of dough with her knife — she was done before I could finish washing my hands–and pulled a kitchen chair up against the counter for me to stand on. We worked well together: she dropped a spoonful of poppy seed or prune filling on each piece of dough and I pinched the corners together to enclose it. When she served the rolls that night for supper, she told Grandpa I had made them all by myself.

 

Grandpa liked to drive us the four blocks to the Lonsdale corner store in his red Ford-F150, which  smelled of tackle box, tobacco, and sharp-sweet sawdust. He would buy me a tall bottle of Bubble-Up and pretend he wasn’t showing me off to his friends, who all knew he was. They sat at the counter together in a sturdy row of pinstriped overalls and workshirts,  rating tools and machinery, shaking their solemn heads over someone they knew who had fallen from a ladder. I perched on a stool at the end of the counter next to Grandpa in my cords and monogrammed sweater, forcing myself to finish all of the Bubble-Up. I knew what it meant to be included in this.

 

Until I had children, Camp Lake Hubert was the closest I came to having home all in one place. I spent eight summers there as a camper, experimenting with my character and learning to find my people. When I returned as a counselor after four summers away, I got dropped off one night in the upper parking lot without a flashlight. I walked all the way to Wrens cabin in that straightforward, thorough darkness I will always associate with the Minnesota Northwoods. I have a sense memory of that night, of knowing the trees and steps and buildings so well, understanding myself so clearly in relation to them, that I never even considered the possibility of being lost. I believed I would find my way so I found my way, on that night and others, both at camp and away.

 

Outdoor Winter Pots
© 2015 Marta C Drew

 

 

Maybe I descend from a band of traveling, singing figure skaters who wandered from town to town, maybe it’s just a story. It doesn’t matter …I have never wanted to be one of the travelers. I want to be part of the town. I am not content to wander the way my ancestors did centuries ago. I am not a free spirit; I have always been in search of a place to land.  In all of my traveling back and forth between parents, grandparents, camp and beyond, I never stayed anywhere long enough to feel completely at home.

 

Home is togetherness, yes. Home is my collection of people, recipes, and remembrances. But I have learned I can’t carry that on my back –I need architecture around it. I need a solid place, a single place, to feed and welcome those who pass through and decide to stay. Home for me is a Thanksgiving table, a quiet room, a bedroom, a kitchen. Home is another voice in the dark.

 

 

Rules

Woods at CLH
© 2015 Marta C Drew

Habitual rule-breakers always stressed me out — the sign says “Do Not Trespass,” so don’t trespass, right?  What did they think they were going to find in there, an entrance to the Ministry of Magic? A golden ticket?  What was the point? Disobedience for its own sake never made any more sense to me than blind submission. Either way, you aren’t thinking. Rules, for better or worse, define the borders between our delicate civilization and the wilderness surrounding us, between our tenuous self-control and the wilderness within us.

 

I am the only child of a fifth-grade-teacher-turned-attorney and a high school principal. I grew up with a lot of rules. My parents were divorced and their philosophies of discipline diametrically opposed, but the message was essentially the same: “I am paying attention. I care about your safety, your friends, your education, your decisions. I care about what kind of person you are.” My mother’s rules had a practical angle –she favored job charts, natural consequences, and behavior contracts. My dad was more interested in my spiritual development, so a lot of his discipline centered around showing up for God. It didn’t matter that they were different … both methods translated into love, so following their rules made sense, like accepting love makes sense. Why wouldn’t I?

 

Of course I didn’t. I went home after school like I was supposed to, but then I left my backpack by the door — sometimes outside– and turned on the stereo and/or the TV and/or the oven. Maybe I mixed ingredients for chocolate chip cookies. Then I grabbed a wooden spatula or a whisk, put in my Terence Trent D’Arby tape, stood on the back of the couch in the living room, and sang “Wishing Well” a couple of times. Then I called three different friends, talking to each one for at least 20 minutes and stretching the telephone cord down the hall and up the stairs. After that: cookies and a nap in front of the  T.V.  Around 5:00, I ordered a pizza that I paid for with quarters from my step-dad’s change jar. By 6:15, my mom came home from work and asked how homework was going (it wasn’t), whether I had practiced my clarinet (I hadn’t), and what sounded good for dinner (nothing — I was already full of pizza and cookies). I never tried smoking, I didn’t ever drink, I didn’t cheat on tests or get in fights, but I also didn’t follow the rules.

 

To become a whole, self-aware human being, I had to break some rules.

 

Would my life have been better if I had? I guess it might have been smoother during adolescence. Following all the rules would have earned me more consistent grades and approval from my parents. But following all the rules would also have kept me from taking risks, which is how I really got to know myself. It was my parents’ job to introduce the limits when I was little, but my job to define them as I grew. Ultimately, only I could decide how far I was willing to go, what I was willing to risk, and what (or who) was worth it. To become a whole, self-aware human being, I had to break some rules. I had to crack open and examine the standards I was given and decide what to keep, reject, or fix.  Until then, neither rebellion nor obedience could have purpose.

 

A few years ago, while I was sitting by the window in my family room, a doe left the path her family usually took across the back of our property. She picked her way across the lawn, littered with my children’s bubble wands and hula hoops, and stepped right up to my window, where she stood watching me from about three feet away. I concentrated on sitting still so she would stay. She had risked something to be so close to me and I knew my job was to make that safe for her. She had broken the rules for some unfathomable reason and now here we were: two girls, two deer, two animals crossing the border between civilization and wilderness. I was the wilderness for her and she was the wilderness for me.

 

I still follow more rules than I break. I wait my turn, I read recipes, I leave private property alone. Yet the world needs rebels too. We need the border-crossers. Because if we must crack open each life for the sake of our own humanity, then certainly the world needs the same treatment for the sake of our collective humanity. We need the rules, yes, the civilization and the self control, however fragile. But more than that, we need the wilderness –all around us, within us, so we remember how little stands between us.

 

Growing Older

 

 

Pamela Park October 30
©2015 Marta C Drew

 

When I think of childhood, I remember sitting on the jungle gym in my dad’s back yard with Betsy Burritt, poking straws into whole oranges to suck out the juice and pitching the rest over the fence until my dad caught us.

 

When I think of childhood, I picture the bubble lights on my dad’s Christmas tree, the bright pink, tart applesauce GramBea used to make with crabapples, the Anne Murray album my mom played while we dusted and changed the sheets on my sofa bed, and summers at Camp Lake Hubert.

 

And when I think of childhood, I think of a spot on the playground at Highlands Elementary School in 1981, where I faced two bright, charismatic, mean-spirited girls in my class:

 

“Does your mom have a boyfriend?” one of them asked, looking at the other and scrunching up her nose.

 

“Yes. Steve.” Voice steady, no tears, voice steady, no tears, voice steady, no tears. I chanted this in my head as I spoke, never doubting their right to an answer. I couldn’t walk away — I wasn’t allowed. Their power was absolute.

 

“I bet they’re humping right now.” Delighted with their audacity, secure in their unbroken, conventional families, they shrieked and giggled while I waited for the bell to ring and end this. Their mothers were at home, doing whatever their kind of mother did. Mine was downtown in her law office, probably humping her boyfriend. Because that was what divorced, working mothers did according to everyone in 1981.

 

And there it was: my child’s perception of the difference between kid and adult: I was at the mercy of my circumstances and she was fully in charge of hers.

 

Furious, wanting to punish her for my humiliation at school, I confronted my mom in our little one-bedroom apartment that night. “Do you and Steve Do It?” I asked her, narrowing my eyes, spitting out the words, waiting for hot tears of shame to slide down her cheeks. As they should.

 

But my mother was a self-actualized modern woman, not about to let her nine-year-old daughter degrade her. “Do you mean do we make love? Yes, we do,” she said, completely, horribly, unbearably at peace with her choices.

 

And there it was: my child’s perception of the difference between kid and adult: I was at the mercy of my circumstances and she was fully in charge of hers.

 

I think about that, now that I am ostensibly a grownup myself. I am not fully in charge of anything. The life choices I have so carefully made come with all kinds of circumstances that bring me to my knees. I am neither self-actualized nor modern by anyone’s standards and I am certainly not a grownup, because nobody should be. “Grownup” implies that the period of development is over, but growth is possible right up until the moment our souls leave the earth. We talk about childhood in terms of growing and adulthood in terms of aging, but aging is just change on the world’s terms. Growth is change on ours. Any child, under the wrong conditions, can age and any adult, under the right ones, can grow.

 

There were at least two more years after that scene on the playground of chasing the mean girls, begging for their friendship, trying to buy their favor with gifts and loyalty they hadn’t earned, inviting them to parties without getting invited back, selling out my true friends, before I finally began to grow out of that. Until then, I was only aging.

 

Even now, having just turned 43, I catch myself getting intimidated sometimes by the mean kids. I still have a hard time in the company of certain people, keeping my voice steady and my tears in check. But then I remember I don’t have to answer to those who want to hurt me for sport. I remember that I am allowed to walk away. I am not a grownup, but I’m growing.

 

When I was little, I watched the adults around me and pieced together an idea of life as a full-grown person: I would stay up late eating M&Ms and watching T.V. like my dad; I would work in an office and attend orchestra concerts every weekend like my mom; I would play tennis down at the park like Grandma and Grandpa Thacher and host big, wonderfully loud Christmas dinners; I would sit quietly in my den at night like Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek and pare an apple,  the peel falling in one long, whole, vivid spiral from their sure hands. That was my idea of how to be a grownup.

 

I am not a grownup, but I am not a child, either. I still carry the weight of my circumstances, but I carry it better. I carry it smarter.

 

Of course my perception changed as I grew. The benefits of adulthood evolved in my mind from eating M&Ms and playing tennis to living in my own space and choosing the people in it. Growing older stopped being about perks and started being about power. Year by year, I claimed  more of a say in how I spent my time and with whom. I dropped clarinet and started singing. I let go of friends who consistently hurt me, even if it meant being alone. I stopped begging for love from boys or men who didn’t freely offer it. There is still meanness to confront, both in myself and in others. People will die, blessings will come and go, mistakes will be made, but as long as I am growing, none of it can degrade me.

 

I am not a grownup, but I am not a child, either. I still carry the weight of my circumstances, but I carry it better. I carry it smarter. I know what friendship is supposed to feel like and I know how to make decisions I can live with, even if I’m never really at peace with my choices and even if I’m never fully in charge.

 

An adult, according to most definitions, is someone fully grown and developed. If that is true, then let me become one only when my life is over. Until then, let me grow older. Let me keep the oranges and bubble lights, the applesauce, music, and summers at camp. Let me cast off the weight of powerlessness. Let me not age but keep growing, find peace with my choices, until my life is done and falls in one long, whole, vivid spiral from my sure hands.

 

Rules for Turning 40

Gypsy Hausfrau portrait small edited

 

1. Don’t get cynical –especially about love. Stay romantic. Stay idealistic –for as long as you can.

 

2. Don’t mistake fear for intuition.  When you have a gut feeling that everything is about to go to shit, try to remember that it could be because there have been a lot of times in the last 10 years when it has. If it’s going to go to shit, then you can’t stop it anyway. Keep a good supply of Cap’n Crunch around just in case and discipline yourself to enjoy the easier times.

 

3. Don’t keep punishing yourself for your mistakes. Really,  a lot of them are understandable and all of them are forgivable. Chronic trauma makes selfish nightmares of all of us …it’s okay. You tried really hard.

 

Don’t mistake fear for intuition. 

 

4.  Stop being so grateful to people who only offer the bare minimum. You don’t have to be angry with them, but they don’t need all of your gorgeous love and attention, either. You’d insist on better treatment for your closest people, so start insisting on better treatment for yourself.

 

5.  Extend your hand in all directions –in love, in friendship, in understanding, in rescue, in peace, in humble gratitude. Build people up when they need it (this is where you can trust your intuition) …it costs you nothing.

 

6. Keep returning to your essential self. Read, knit, sing, watch the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, write, cook, bake, take care of your home and anyone who enters it. That’s who you are.

 

7. You don’t have to die on every hill –be creative. There are brick walls in every life, every relationship, every heart. It’s okay …let them be there. You don’t have to climb them or blast through them, you can just move around them; they may be tall, but they’re not necessarily wide.

 

Keep taking risks –big ones. Take social risks, fashion risks, emotional and creative risks.

 

8. Stop saying “I’m sorry” when what you really mean is “fuck you.” A lot of us women do that. Let’s stop it.

 

9.  Keep laughing about as much as you can.

 

10. Let people take pictures of you. No, you’re not seventeen anymore. No, you’re not 22 or even 32.  You’re soft in the middle and your knees make weird crackly noises every time you go upstairs. You often have dark circles under your eyes and it won’t be long until your nipples start tickling the tops of your feet. But you’re still pretty and it’s important that you allow people to record your presence in their lives if that matters to them. Assume it matters to your children (it does) and assume that everyone sees beauty in you that you can’t see yourself.

 

11. Keep taking risks –big ones. Take social risks, fashion risks, emotional and creative risks. When they work out, great –that’s how you gain confidence. When they fail spectacularly, even better –that’s how you gain empathy and understanding.

 

12. Continue to let people know how much they mean to you …you would want to know.

 

13.  Stay connected to God. Sometimes you feel like He couldn’t possibly be paying attention to you, but He is. He is writing this beautiful engaging story about you as you live it, filled with entertaining hypocrites to challenge you and tender heroes to inspire you. He is everywhere in your life, spinning you around the dance floor, working His magic. You’re important to Him, so make sure He knows He’s important to you. Listen. He is telling you your connections are strong, your family is whole, your shredded heart is healing. You are 40. That is wonderful.

 

Weight

Biker Caroline 051711

 

Carrying something heavy isn’t in and of itself a painful thing. Really, the pain only comes as the weight is added or lifted, as bone and muscle shift to accommodate the burden or its absence.

 

Caroline had her first seizure about three and a half years ago. Since that moment, I have carried her condition and all that came with it –hours pulling her in a little red wagon in laps around the seventh floor of Children’s Hospital; combing glue out of her hair after every EEG; watching the anesthesiologist at Mayo carry her, woozy from a sedative, out of the nurses’ station to her surgery; unspeakable anxiety, loneliness, isolation; fighting for her, fighting with her, fighting just to remind myself I still could.

 

During the time this weight was first being lowered onto me, my heart registered each additional brick, reshaped itself to take the new pressure  –I’m sure all four of its chambers back then were small rectangular hospital rooms with IV poles and call buttons.

 

But now she’s doing well –extremely well, actually. She still has developmental delays and may never completely catch up to her peers, but she’s happy and musical and chirpy and affectionate. She can go to playground camp or school or Grandma’s house without my having to be with her the whole time. She still needs me, but she doesn’t need me so constantly. Good. Of course I say good.

 

But as this weight is finally being lifted, I’ve become aware of it again for the first time in a long time. My heart is already starting to remember what it once was, its natural shape, and has begun work restoring itself.  The IV poles have been wheeled into the hallway to be taken away, the call buttons are disconnected. One day soon those chambers will be familiar places again –a cabin at Camp Lake Hubert, GramBea’s Cooper Avenue house, my dad’s garden, my first apartment. I look forward to that, but while it’s under construction, it’s a big mess and hurts like hell.

 

My heart is already starting to remember what it once was, its natural shape, and has begun work restoring itself. 

 

The thing I worry about, the thing I have been worrying about as I pack to leave this house in a couple of weeks, is that even if this weight is one day completely lifted –even if my Caroline grows up and is able to drive, work, live independently, find love that fulfills her, and friendships that feed her –my heart and mind will not remember how to be without the weight of her illness and need. I worry that when the dust clears in the chambers of my heart, one of them will forever be a small rectangular hospital room with an IV pole and a nurse’s call button nobody ever uses.

 

As we have been looking at houses to potentially buy, we have seen some bizarre renovations and additions, evidence of people trying to adapt old houses designed for one kind of living to modern families committed to a new kind of living. I applaud the effort, really; I’m all about preserving the beauty and character of the past whenever possible. There’s something rather lovely about people determined to gently tug their old houses into the future with them. I like the idea but it has to be done so carefully, so expertly, to effectively reconcile what’s already there with what you want to build now.

 

But maybe I could do that as I tear down my hospital rooms. Maybe I could use the old bricks for a fireplace in the cabin, a patio at GramBea’s house, pavers in my dad’s garden, a thick kitchen wall in my old apartment. I would still be carrying them around with me as I have been, but on my terms, beautifully, a reconciliation of what’s already in my heart with what I want to build now. A heavy thing …but not a painful thing.

 

Toward and Away

Gypsy Hausfrau Header Image Edited and Resized 101715

 

I am packing –I have ten boxes so far. I am trying not to resent the people who bought our house for one dollar and 46 cents; they did, after all, rescue me from a real-estate market summer with three kids and their sandy feet, their camp bags dripping with lakewater/sweat/bug spray, and their fairy camp glitter crafts. I was ever-so-slightly anxious about that.

 

Every move we make in this life is either toward or away; one motivation is usually stronger than the other. If the choice is between Camp and Somewhere Else, the desire to move toward camp will always win out over the desire to move away from Somewhere Else, even if Somewhere Else is the Valley of Ashes or the DMV. If the choice is between a beet and Something Else, the desire to move away from the beet is always stronger than the desire to move toward Something Else, even if the Something Else is GramBea’s rice pudding with sliced bananas and fresh whipped cream. There’s a governing force –toward or away.

 

I began crying a little bit when I was packing the other night. I wasn’t surprised at this … I’m never particularly surprised to catch myself crying and I happened to be half-watching the Glee finale at the time (if you ask me, it wasn’t really what it could have been, but still). Even if I weren’t the emotional creature I am, I would have expected a certain emotional release when I finally started packing to leave this house; any impetus for motion from here will always be Away. I want to move away from the washing machine flood that wrecked most of our basement and first floor about a year after we moved here; I want to move away from the room I was sitting in when the call came about Kyle; I want to move away from the spot in the kitchen where I will forever see the elaborate poster I made to keep track of all of Caroline’s seizure medications.

 

Every move we make in this life is either toward or away; one motivation is usually stronger than the other.

 

In my more rational moments, I know not to blame this house for all of that unhappiness, but let’s just say it –I don’t have that many rational moments. I’m not demanding of myself any fairness to this house just yet. I’m not insisting that I celebrate right now the good stuff that has happened here — the loud, joyous, giggly breakfasts with my Julie and her family after church; the out-of-the-blue phone calls from people whose voices I hadn’t heard in 20 years; the happy hours in the kitchen or the garden; the snowy Saturday mornings on the couch with Brian and the Drewlets. I’ll remember those later and be grateful for them later. Right now I only want to be away.

 

Ideally, the big moves in our lives are more Toward than Away, but I don’t have a Toward yet; we’re still looking for a new house. It’s unsettling. While I was packing for the move to our first house, I used to picture myself reading on the little screened porch, wearing a tank top and soft, stretchy pants. I’d picture myself pouring fresh orange juice from a glass pitcher and nibbling on a scone or some scrambled eggs. I pictured plants and flowers and candles and pillows and books and a knit blanket or two for when it got chilly. I was dreading leaving Minneapolis and going to Cleveland for Brian’s residency, but I could imagine a whole, content, interesting self on that porch –I was moving toward that more than I was moving away from Minneapolis.

 

I do not yet have a porch to move toward as I pack to move away from this house, but I have the tank top and the soft, stretchy pants …I have the glass pitcher and a truly excellent currant scone recipe. I have the plants and candles and pillows and books and I have a blanket I knit myself from old sweaters and leftover yarn. I moved away from her for a while, but I have a whole, content, interesting self to look forward to.

 

And there is me, a woman I have rushed towards and turned away from and dragged towards and run away from and stepped carefully towards and danced recklessly away from.

 

She’s doing more writing than reading these days, this whole, content, interesting self I’m moving toward, and she isn’t alone in the scene anymore –wherever she’s sitting, whatever she’s doing, her husband is done with the grueling residency now and is bringing her a mocha (iced or hot, depending on the season). He made it for her out of coffee beans he roasted himself in a popcorn popper and bittersweet chocolate sauce she keeps in the fridge. Her son is telling her about his latest Lego creation or reading her some of his original poetry and her little daughters are singing Michael Franti’s “Say Hey (I Love You),” while they color. The rooms are fuzzy but there is light and warmth and music and good food. There is love and forgiveness and recovery. There are deep friendships for everyone, comfort, understanding, beauty.

 

And there is me, a woman I have rushed towards and turned away from and dragged towards and run away from and stepped carefully towards and danced recklessly away from –each turn with equal force, motivated by the same question: if I have a choice between my life and Something Else, will I always choose mine, even with its losses and disappointments, even with its occasional loneliness? My nature is to ask this question over and over again even though the answer is always Yes. Every move is toward that Yes.

 

Endings

 

Rain Gardener Lizzie 092711

 

I’ve been (particularly) emotional lately …things are ending. I am not necessarily referring to the End of the World, which the Mayans apparently scheduled-by-not-scheduling for later this year, though I have to say that the deaths of Whitney Houston, Maurice Sendak, Vidal Sassoon, AND Donna Summer in the same year have me a bit edgy. What could that MEAN?

 

Lizzie, my youngest, turned five yesterday.  Of course the early childhood years are intense for everyone …the nursing, the sadomasochistic sleep schedules (theirs and ours), the laundry, the temper tantrums (theirs and ours), the saccharine tv shows, the aggressive bitches who show up at preschool dropoff in full hair and makeup, the vomit, the blood, the tinkle, the poop, the tears (theirs and ours), the pining for our former lives, the very real fear that Child and Family Services are on their way, the diapers, the permanent Lego and Squinky and sparkly bead engravings on our feet.

 

Even when nothing goes seriously wrong, the early years with kids are enough to rattle most of us. In the midst of the Standard Mama Experience, one of mine started having rare seizures on a December night as we pulled her out of the bathtub. She was two. We did weeks of steroid shots, tried I-don’t-know-how-many scary medications for the next three months, had several hospital slumber parties that weren’t nearly as fun as you’re imagining them to be, then had the right temporal lobe of her brain removed in a nine-hour surgery at Mayo Clinic when she was three.

 

Even when nothing goes seriously wrong, the early years with kids are enough to rattle most of us.

 

All of this while I was still supposed to be Mama to a sensitive, dreamy five-year-old boy and a passionate, stubborn 1 1/2-year-old girl. So can we all just agree I had a bigger rock to roll up the hill than most Mamas? I did …partly because of what was happening to my Caroline, partly because of what was happening to our family, and partly because of what was happening to me. I don’t know what fed what — that’s one of those chicken and egg questions that mamas of tiny children don’t have time for.

 

But now Lizzie (the passionate, stubborn baby –who KNOWS where she gets those qualities?) is five. Not quite ready for summer employment on an Alaskan fishing boat, perhaps, but able to poke her own straw through the hole in her juice pouch without spraying juice everywhere, able to choose her own bold fashion ensembles, and able to sing soulful and expressive (if ever-so-slightly off-tune) renditions of most Disney songs. She still needs me to snuggle her and scratch her back after she’s had one of her intimidating Corleone tantrums, but she doesn’t need me to feed her. Reason isn’t exactly featured in her personal philosophy but she is able, for the most part, to comprehend it. She is five. She is not a baby anymore.

 

The baby years are over for all three of my children. That fact has been traveling through my nervous system for the last month or so, lighting it up with hope and wonder and possibilities in this minute, then flooding it in the next with longing for those lumpy, helpless beings who fell asleep at my breast, dreaming (I assume) of their former lives as explorers or priestesses or fortune tellers.

 

I will want to rescue them in those moments, move mountains and crush enemies and give them the world. But I will want that for me, not for them, so I’ll force myself to resist the maternal heroics.

 

It’s getting harder to find the babies I started with in the faces of the children I have now. Henry is nine, experimenting with obscure Greek and Egyptian mythology jokes he writes himself and going off on week-long camping trips with his dad and grandpa to the Boundary Waters. I assume he will return after this summer’s trip with a full beard.  Caroline is six –creative and theatrical and quite possibly very bright despite the tumor and seizures. We’ll know when we know and it doesn’t matter to me either way –I got to keep her; I will never forget to be grateful for that. And now Lizzie, my babiest baby, is five –social and emotional and funny. They’re real people, growing up and away.

 

This is as it should be –you’ll never hear me say I don’t ever want them to go out on their own. I do, though I want that for them, not for me. I want them to have close, deep friendships so they can sit in their rooms and talk about what a nightmarish disappointment I am as a mother. I want them to experience epic, mind-blowing failure; devastating, unrequited love; crushing, faith-testing disappointment. When these calamities befall them, I will want to rescue them in those moments, move mountains and crush enemies and give them the world. But I will want that for me, not for them, so I’ll force myself to resist the maternal heroics. I always want to be the Red Cross in their lives, not the liberation front.

 

In my own life, of course, I must be both, I must manage both my own rescue and my own restoration. Once I have marched into the burning cities of my recent history and freed them from the dictators, I will still have to restore the architecture, the masterpieces and artifacts. That is just fine …I’m ready to do it and I know how to do it. My own wise, selfless parents allowed me to grow up, granted me my failure and unrequited love and disappointment, so I know how to do it.

 

My children’s babyhood is ending, the years of their helplessness and blind trust and love-bordering-on-worship are ending …but the world isn’t ending.

 

Faith

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.