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

Winter

Pamela Park Christmas Day 2013

 

Thoughts, rest your wings.
Here is a hollow of silence,
a nest of stillness,
in which to hatch your dreams.

~Joan Walsh Anglund

 

Are you a winter person? I don’t know if I would say that about myself, though winter is an important time for me. I repair my wells in January and February: mercy, resolve, insight, reverence.

 

I like to hide out this time of year, to deeply rest. Once the kids are in school, I curl up on the wood floor in front of my fireplace and read poems or close my eyes. Sometimes I stare out at the park. There is something reassuring about seeing the world in black and white when I’m grieving or lonely, like Nature feels it with me.

 

I imagine that deep inside the frozen trees are their summer selves, recovering from storms, sorting out everything they’ve witnessed. Anyway, that’s what I do this time of year. That’s what winter is for.

 

 

Spring Pamela

Credo

Henry blue onesie 8

 

I’m for love –the kind you need and want from the people who give it best. I’m for Wonder Woman and wonder women, Dreamers and underdogs. I am against scapegoating, nepotism, and recklessness.

 

I stand for democracy, honesty, and integrity. I believe in voting for presidential candidates who have studied the United States Constitution. I am pro-Obama, both Barack and Michelle.

 

I am firmly pro-camp-song, pro-knitting, and pro-cookbook. I am for gluten, butter, and sugar and I am against discussing the amount of carbs, fat, or evil in food before eating it, especially if someone else made it.

 

Christmas Croissants 2014
© 2015 Marta C Drew

 

I am staunchly pro-understanding, pro-empathy, and pro-humanity. I believe in birthday cake for breakfast and I believe in mothers who taught themselves French with language tapes and sounded exactly like Julia Child when they practiced. I am pro-nerd, anti-glitter.

 

I stand for deep quiet, loons, and swimming with horses, which I tried once and which 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’s about reconciliation between our vision and God’s, a big explanation, God saying “this is why and this is why and this is why.”

 

I’m for God – believing in Him and trusting Him, even when I don’t understand …especially then.

 

I am against racism, narrow thinking, and sanctimonious bullshit. I am for  including my friends in my family, forgiveness (though I’m not good at it yet), compassion, and generosity. I am for staying in touch. I will always be for connection, devotion, and affection.

 

I am anti-bully, anti-narcissist, anti-terrorist, anti-gun. I am passionately anti-Trump. I stand against cynicism and against women selling each other out. I am for Hillary and I always will be – she would have been fantastic.

 

I am pro-men, anti-mansplaining, manspreading, manhandling, and mancolds. I am pro-mama, pro-family, and pro-choice. I believe in music, art, and teaching lots of both in schools.

 

I am for Harry Potter. I’m for the friends who fought with him and I’m for Snape, who didn’t but still fought for him. I am for the inimitable Alan Rickman, gone too soon. I am for heroes who stand up for the vulnerable and I am for all of us encouraging each other to be our full, best selves.

 

I am anti-liar, anti-coward, anti-hypocrite. I am against wanting to be cool when you’re a grown-ass adult, against anyone who’s mean to waiters, and against political whores (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan).

 

No to mealy apples, no to fake vanilla, and no to gratuitous violence. No to entertaining yourself by watching videos of people –especially children—getting hurt. No to humor that’s designed to humiliate, no to both phone and in-person soliciting. Yes to romance, lake swimming, being up late at night. Yes to wilderness and protecting it. Yes to fat, sweet blackberries on top of a vanilla cheesecake that’s more custardy than cakey. Yes to Rose Levy Beranbaum, who taught me how to make one.

 

I am pro-cabin, pro-campfire, pro-canoe, and all about Camp Lincoln and Camp Lake Hubert. I am against mocking people for believing in God and I am against mocking people for not believing in God. I am particularly pro-waffle but not necessarily anti-pancake.

 

Camp Lake Hubert

 

I am pro-late-night, pro-early-morning, pro-privacy. I am both pro-Western and pro-Eastern medicine. I am for the old crabapple tree behind my grandma and Grandpa’s house on Cooper Avenue and I am especially for the rosy pink, tart applesauce GramBea made with its fruit. I will never be able to recreate it, but I’m still for it.

 

I am for the roses, hostas, and peonies my dad grew – he knew all their names—and I am for Simon Pearce glass, which is both beautiful and practical. I am for Simon Pearce himself, whom I met a couple of years ago. He was lovely, just as I expected him to be. I am for Chef Thomas Keller, the poet Mary Oliver, Meryl Streep, Leslie Odom, Jr, Patty Griffin, and all others who devote themselves to beauty and understanding the human experience.

 

I am anti-mid-winter, when everything is the same color and looks like the inside of an ashtray. I am also against overhead lighting and music that doesn’t match the occasion or location.

 

I am in favor of the simple, peaceful Lonsdale graveyard where my dad and many 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 am for flannel sheets and down comforters with the windows cracked.

 

I believe in silent understanding and I believe in singing together – my Uncle Will taught me how important that is, how healing it can be. I believe in daydreams, naps, nostalgia, and Expressive Math. I don’t believe in making people guess how I’m feeling.

 

I am pro-humility, pro-unity. I am pro-aloneness, anti-loneliness. I am pro-Brussels-sprout, anti-beet. I am pro-flower and pro-flour. I am for GramBea’s rice pudding (no eggs) and I am for Sue Burritt’s World-Famous Chocolate Cake, which may or may not actually be world-famous, but should be. I am anti-canned-cranberries – you won’t change my mind about that.

 

IMG_20161025_182551

 

I am for giving teachers and administrators the benefit of the doubt, unless you’re ready to stand up and take on the job yourself (trust me, you’re not). I am against hyper-competitiveness and unreasonable standards for kids and I am guilty of both, though I’m working on it. I am pro-public-schools, pro-public-libraries, and pro-public-lands. I am for dads who make very convincing camel faces and I am for moms who call you Lamby and Lovebug right up until they die.

 

I am pro-lilac, rosemary, lavender, and peony. I cannot support cooking vegetables until they’re gray, nor can I support desserts that don’t taste as good as they look. I believe in putting a dash of almond extract in my sugar cookies and I believe in bourbon. No beer for me, thank you.

 

Yes to GramBea playing piano out on her four-season porch as I was coming in from school, yes to the people who camped out with me at the hospice house when my mom was dying, 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 people who make you feel like you’re crazy for feeling too much. No to Mitch McConnell, Devin Nunes, and Fox News. Shame on all of them.

 

Yes to reminding people they are not alone – including myself. Yes to friendship and shared history, to people who are afraid but keep trying anyway. Yes to women reclaiming their time and yes to men who really listen. Yes to singing in the hospital and yes to therapy animals because really, what other kind is there?

 

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.

 

White Peony II

Fear

Deep Autumn 2013
© 2016 Marta C Drew

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Candle in the Window
© 2016 Marta C Drew

Stardom

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A confession: I have always believed I have to be a star.

 

To be clear, I don’t mean I am destined to be a star; just that I am supposed to be one. Stardom feels like a responsibility, a debt I owe my parents, teachers, classmates, and anyone else who sees me as a writer who hasn’t done anything legitimate with her talent yet. It’s also a kind of unspoken, unwritten contract I entered into with my attorney mother when I decided to stay home with my kids instead of pursuing a Career-with-a-Capital-C:

 

She would allow me to choose this path, which she did not respect because she believed it made me dependent on my husband and because she considered it beneath the dignity of intelligent, modern women. In return, I would keep writing while I changed diapers and did the laundry and kept fevers down and made dinner. I would keep practicing and eventually, when my children were studying at their respectable colleges, looking gorgeous and being unimaginably charming (the least I could do if I wasn’t going to accomplish anything else in the years they were home with me), I would emerge from my drab domestic chrysalis in a shimmering caftan, expensive bifocals dangling on a golden chain around my neck, and rocket to the top of every list that mattered to her.

 

At some point, I must have agreed to this, I must have signed that contract. It might have been when I was 20, the day I told my mother I wanted to stay home with babies and bake lovely cakes and muffins and make quilts. We were in her kitchen and she gripped the counter, leaning forward with her shoulders up around her jaw, which couldn’t find the right position. “Okaaaaaayyyy,” she half-sang, half muttered to her gorgeous fingernails, which she still manicured herself each Sunday night while she watched Masterpiece Theater. She couldn’t relate to this.

 

Don’t be too hard on her. I was two and she was 35 when she started law school in 1974. There were few other women in her class and even fewer with young children. She had been a 5th-grade teacher for 11 years before having me and spent another year or so afterwards earning a Master’s degree in Pyschology from the University of Minnesota. She used to tell me that Watergate saved her from the punishing boredom of being home with a newborn. What can I say? It’s a good thing she didn’t want to write greeting cards.

 

She was a Grinnell graduate, a Wyonegonic camp counselor, and an Edina teacher. She played flute and sang beautifully, never met a kid she couldn’t somehow charm and discipline at the same time, and had an organizational system for everything. She was the first female partner at her enormous downtown law firm, which she eventually left to start her own practice. She wore power suits with shoulder pads, mentored young lawyers, held season tickets to the Guthrie Theater and the Minnesota Orchestra. She did the Sunday crossword and dabbled in Sudoku, sat on hospital credentialing boards, and knew the Minneapolis skyway system like the back of her hand. She was already the star she wanted me to be.

 

I am so proud of her. I have never aspired to what my mom dreamed for me, but I love what she dreamed for herself and reached for and achieved. I still brag about her all the time, but she’s gone now and the contract is null and void. I’m off the hook, I don’t have to succeed her way, so what next? What am I going to dream for myself?

 

I do want to write and publish a book in my lifetime, though I don’t know what kind. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s useful to anyone who reads it. I want it to be the kind of book someone can melt into and maybe hide out in for a while. I don’t need critical acclaim or celebrity …or at least I’m trying not to need those things, which feel like part of the old contract.

 

Staying at home with my babies was a good decision for me, it turns out … not because kids always need their mothers at home –you will never hear this attorney’s daughter say something that reductive—but because I love being at home.  My work is a natural extension of who I am. I have tweaked the original vision: I expanded my baking repertoire beyond the original cakes and muffins and replaced the quilt-making, which involves too much geometry for me, with knitting, which is a better waiting room skill.

 

I am living the life I dreamed for myself, just like my mom did. Of course there are mistakes and detours and whatnot, but I love what I do and I’m proud of my work. Isn’t that dignified? Isn’t that intelligent? Isn’t that modern, even if my name isn’t on a paycheck? (It should be).

 

I think my mom saw my decision to be a hausfrau as a kind of betrayal, a refusal to acknowledge what she had to go through to achieve what she did in the ’70s and ’80s, but I absolutely acknowledge that and I am so grateful. Watching her bravely go to work when the “respectable mothers” were at home is precisely what has given me the courage to stay home when the “respectable women” go to work. The point of our striving for equality should never be what kind of work we do, the point should be fighting for the choice and granting each other the space, the respect to make that choice, even if we don’t understand it.

 

I will keep one part of the original contract: I will keep writing, though I write for my own reasons now. I write to reassure, to be a voice in the dark, not for approval or recognition. I will send these letters or essays or whatever they are out to You in hopes that they are useful, maybe a place to rest for a minute and let yourself off the hook.

 

And I will send them out to my brilliant, brave, inspiring mother, gone for almost four years now, in hopes that these reflections reach her through increasing time and space, through the darkness and silence that always seems to exist between two stars.

 

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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.

The Thumbsucking Witch

Little Marta Easter 1977

 

Well, hello and happy new year, my dear friend …

 

You probably never did this, but when I was a little girl, I sucked my thumb. Long after other kids had quit, I was still doing it. Losing patience, my mom tried painting my thumbs with some gross-tasting liquid to make me stop. Instead, I sucked my poisoned thumbs and wept with indignation. She put me on incentive programs, offered me prizes, rolled her eyes, issued dire warnings about other kids not wanting to be friends with me, but it was all in vain. I was an only child and prone to tears – I wasn’t about to surrender my only reliable source of comfort for a Barbie doll or some vague threat of social isolation.

 

So my mother told me about the Thumbsucking Witch.

 

The Thumbsucking Witch was supposed to be nice, but every child knows there’s no such thing as a nice witch.  Witches are mean, fairies are nice. Elementary stuff, but Mom insisted the Thumbsucking Witch was good-natured. When she caught me sucking my thumb, she would give me a friendly little pinch and I would remember to stop.

 

A witch who pinched me just at the moment I had achieved a temporary and uneasy peace? This was my mother’s idea of “good-natured” and “friendly?” What, then, qualified as evil? These were the kinds of questions that kept me sucking my thumb.

 

According to my mother, I couldn’t see the Thumbsucking Witch but she could see me. Was she invisible or just hiding in the room somewhere? Could she see me when I was in the bathroom? The closet? Was anywhere safe? Was she ever NOT watching me?

 

I believe both the Cold War and my mother’s fascination with James Bond spy movies provide relevant context for my surveillance paranoia.

 

I believed in the Thumbsucking Witch. I didn’t believe she was nice – I was no Pollyanna—but I believed she existed and followed me everywhere, waiting for me to screw up so she could punish me. This, by the way, is a pretty typical GenX origin story.

 

Anyway, I met her. I met the Thumbsucking Witch late one night when I couldn’t sleep. She poked her head and torso through my window, wearing standard-issue pointy black hat and billowing black robes, though no wand — curious.  Nothing about her was friendly. She stayed for about half an hour, shaming and reprimanding me for my disgusting, babyish habit. Again and again I would bring my thumb to my lips and then force it back down under the covers, delirious with fear and longing.

 

When the witch flew away, having first extracted my trembling promise to quit sucking my thumb and threatening to return if I didn’t, I climbed down from my playhouse bed and ran to my parents’ room. I had been right the whole time; the Thumbsucking Witch was not nice. How dare my mother lie to me about something so fundamental? How dare she?

 

Mom was unimpressed with my hysterics. “Marta, the Thumbsucking Witch isn’t real. I made her up so you would stop sucking your thumb. You must have just had a bad dream.”

 

I would have none of it. “She was in my window, she was MEAN and she scared me.” I can only imagine what this scene must have been like for my mother, who had a Master’s degree in psychology and had just graduated from law school. How to counsel such an irrational client?

 

My mother was not the type to indulge drama and sent me back to bed, bawling I’m sure, afraid to suck my thumb and yet needing it to calm down. I wanted to believe that my mother was telling the truth, that the Thumbsucking Witch was just a character she had made up to get me to quit a bad habit — it made sense — but I had seen the Thumbsucking Witch. I had heard her.  I knew she had visited my room and frightened me. Didn’t I?

 

How is a five-year-old supposed to reconcile the rational truth with her perceived experience? How is a 45-year-old supposed to do that?

 

So odd, the things that cross your mind as you listen to the news.

 

I hope you’re well and happy, ready for whatever comes next. I, for one, am wishing for a dull,  quiet year, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to get one. Never mind … we have each other.

 

In love and solidarity,
Marta

Not out of Sorrow, but in Wonder

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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

Mom & Dad

Misty Park

 

Dear Wonderful You,

Have you noticed how some people seem to have these misty, soft-focus end-of-life experience with their parents? That’s not how it happened for me. To tell you the truth, both of them were giant pains in my ass.

 

My mom, with a brain tumor, had no business driving her Lexus Death Star in the middle of a polar vortex. She, of course, would not concede this fact, so while she was at the rehab center after her surgery, I took her keys – and her car batteries for good measure.

 

I confessed the day I picked her up to go home. I was loading her things onto a little cart to take out to my car and had to hold onto it when I told her I was keeping her car keys, my legs and hands were shaking so badly. She yelled at me, I cried and took her home. Once she was sure I had left, she dug out a secret set of keys, likely congratulating herself (again) for being way smarter than her daughter.

 

Of course her cars wouldn’t start, so she called to lecture me about my negligence in exercising them regularly while she was out of commission. Brian took the phone and I sat on the stairs eating my hands while he broke the news about the batteries, which he had hidden in our garage in case one of her friends decided to help her do a break-in.  We knew of a couple who might.

 

We fought near the end of her life like we had when I was a teenager, only the roles were reversed: she wanted to be allowed to take the car; I insisted on more supervision when she was home alone; she couldn’t believe how controlling and overprotective I was being; I said the way she was talking to me made it LESS likely I would acquiesce, not more.  It would have been funny if cancer hadn’t stolen her insight and fear hadn’t stolen mine.

 

Carol & Marta 1977

 

My dad, who had always been gregarious and considerate, became sullen, self-centered at the end of his life. He was embarrassingly rude to waiters and cashiers and claimed my time with neither acknowledgment nor apology:

 

“On the 24th, pick me up at 1:00,” he would say after the briefest of greetings over the phone. “I need to be at the clinic by 1:30.”

“Okay …you know the 24th is my birthday, right?”

“Right.”

“Okay. See you then.”

 

It was 23 minutes to his house in Apple Valley, then another 30 back up north to the clinic, another 20-30 of waiting to start the appointment, another 20-30 once we got in. Then I would go back out to the waiting room for two hours until he was done and drive him home in rush hour traffic. Sometimes I was able to run  to the grocery store or go home to check on my kids while I was waiting.

 

Those appointments were for stent replacements. Once he was diagnosed, in December of last year, he got a port and a more permanent stent and started chemo. He wouldn’t take pain relievers stronger than Tylenol, so in January,  he had a nerve block procedure to manage his pain. We accidentally entered the wrong building  and he walked 20 steps ahead of me all the way through the tunnel to the other one, never saying a word to me.

 

I could count on one hand the number of actual fights we had ever had until the year he died, but we were on opposite sides in the 2016 election. Our political discussions, which used to stop short of doing real damage, started hurting.  Once, while he was getting one of his chemo infusions, I (stupidly) asked him what he thought about Betsy DeVos being Secretary of Education. He was a public school educator and I wanted to hear what he thought about such a catastrophic appointment. It started out okay, but eventually he told me I should move to Canada or Europe with the rest of the snowflakes and I cried because he was being mean, he was dying, and I was ashamed I had started the conversation. The nurses attended to him without looking at either one of us. We worked it out, but I still get a stomachache, thinking about that day.

 

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

 

We hung out on the phone a lot. Sometimes our conversations were just like they used to be. We would talk for a couple of hours about raising kids in competitive, challenging Edina,  loneliness, how hard it is to believe that who you are is enough, how important it is to listen to God. I loved those conversations, but they became fewer and further between. More often, he gave me detailed accounts of what he was eating, his pain, how quickly he was losing weight.

 

I would do anything to have those two know-it-alls back.  I miss them all the time.

 

How are you? Do you feel like some giant drain has opened up and all the good is leaking out of the world? I hope that’s just me.

 

I’m glad we’re back in touch.

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