Between Two Years

South Carolina riverboat 082217

 

Have you ever felt stuck between two years? I do. The problem is this: 2017 was so scary and heartbreaking, from start to finish, that I think I’m afraid to enter 2018.  Despite the fresh sting of my dad’s absence, I had my loveliest holidays in a long time at the end of 2017. I made dinner with my step-sister Kerry for our family like we used to do at our parents’ house years ago and it was such a beautiful party. There were candles and fresh flowers, enough snow for a light cover, delicious food and easy conversation.

 

I miss that night already –I wanted it to last a lot longer. When dinner was over and we were all sitting at the long table, a vision flashed through my mind of us all in an old wooden boat, floating through a stormless channel between What Was and What Will Be. I felt less afraid for a while but as we crept closer to school starting up again, my fear returned.

 

I don’t typically get paralyzed and technically, I’m still doing what I need to do: I go to the grocery store, show up where people are expecting me, water the plants, feed everyone. Yet there’s a strange sense of life happening to me these days. Ordinarily, I make choices –good or bad– and my life, like water, finds its path around them. Since my dad died, I feel like the path is fixed and my choices have to find their way around the inevitability of loss and grief.

 

When my dad got sick two years after my mom died, I had a good cry, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work. We talked every day on the phone about what he might be able to eat, how much weight he was losing. Sometimes he would tell me about conversations he had had with Father Pirkl, his beloved priest from church, about forgiveness and whether God would consider his choosing an easier chemo regimen a kind of despair (NO).  Once in a while, we mistakenly drifted into politics and had to spend a day or two licking our wounds. It was never more than that … we knew we didn’t have that kind of time.

 

I spent the first half of last year in waiting rooms, exam rooms, infusion rooms. Maybe because I’m an only child, maybe because I spent my childhood and adolescence moving back and forth between my divorced parents’ houses, my hobbies are portable. I would knit or write while my dad retreated into his own thoughts or slept in his chair. Last January, when he was in so much pain that it made him cry, I cried with him. I participated in the last months of his life. I walked him all the way through to the end and I never shrank from any of it.

 

I was in the room when he died, an honor both he and Linda, the love of his life, gave me and a sorrow both my mom and Steve, the love of hers, spared me. I am so grateful to all four of them for the way they departed, for sharing their most vulnerable selves with me. I had four anchors when I got married 18 years ago. One by one, they’ve been pulled and now here I am, trying to start my first year without any of them. It’s so strange, not being anyone’s daughter.

I read this poem aloud at my dad’s burial in the Lonsdale cemetery:

 

In Blackwater Woods
By Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

 

So that’s the work ahead of me this year and beyond – making the choice to love fully, despite the fixed path, the black river of loss. My original anchors are gone, yes, but my boat is filled with people I can love right now. It is a new year and we mortals are leaving the quiet channel together, letting go, choosing What Will Be.

Not out of Sorrow, but in Wonder

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

Hello, My Friend …

I have always thought of myself as someone who can handle change. My house never looks exactly the same from season to season, I (mostly) took the end of “Downton Abbey” in stride, and I have learned to let people go when they want to go. I ordered myself a 4-pack of reading glasses when I turned 45 and wear them without complaint. It’s all part of life, I know.

 

My son is as tall as I am … okay. My grandma and grandpa’s lovely old house was torn down and replaced … I can accept that. Grandma Betty is gone and I may never be able to accurately recreate her beautiful kolachkes … sigh … but I’ll allow it.

 

Change is familiar enough, and usually manageable; the problem lately is its volume and speed. Have you ever played Tetris? It’s a video game I used to be obsessed with. Different-shaped blocks fall from the top of your screen and you have to fit them together to form solid rows. When you make a row, it disappears. If you let the pieces pile up to the top, you lose and the longer you play, the faster the pieces fall. The faster they fall, the harder it gets to fit them together.

 

Do you ever feel like that? Like the older you get, the harder it is to fit all the pieces of your life together quickly enough that they don’t pile up on you? I feel like that. Also, the falling pieces are odd shapes these days: my dad’s old Christmas tree with the bubble lights and the wooden Christopher Robin ornament; the upright piano my mom used to play while she sang to me; my grandpa’s red Ford F150, which he would drive three blocks to church just to show off; the dining table where my mom hosted decades of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. None of those pieces fit together and I don’t want them to disappear, but they have, and fast.

 

I sound maudlin …I don’t mean to. Read this:

 

ENCOUNTER
Czeslaw Milosz

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

 

“Not out of sorrow, but in wonder.”
Yes, that’s it.

 

I am going to take a couple of weeks off for Christmas and the New Year, but I’ll be thinking of you as always. Be well, my friend. I wish for the moving pieces in your life to slow down a bit in the coming days. I wish you meaningful celebrations with the people who fill you up the most.

 

It doesn’t matter to me what you celebrate … whatever it is, I hope it’s delicious.

In love and solidarity,
Marta

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,
Marta

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

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.