Early-Mid-Life Inventory


Marta b&w apple orchard 2006


Early-Mid-Life Inventory for Marta Drew in her 43rd Year
(Wait … 44th year? If I’m 43, aren’t I in my 44th? I don’t know—shut up)


Math competency compared to first year of junior high:


Amount of life spent living in hometown:
approximately half


Current social status in said hometown:
Unapologetic Teardown Asshole


Garrison Keillor sightings within the last ten days:


Garrison Keillor sightings within the last ten years:


Number of Meyers-Briggs personality type indicator tests I have taken since my early 20s, legitimate and otherwise:


Meyers-Briggs personality type on every single one:
(I)ntroverted, i(N)tuitive, (F)eeling, (J)udging


Current self-improvement goal:
complete fundamental transformation into woman who remains gracious and benevolent even when absolutely everyone is being a dick


Progress towards this goal:
anywhere from 4-14 %, depending on how much sleep and ice cream I’ve had


Respect for 30-and-40-something women who really really want their children to be Cool Kids:


Favorite novel of all time, no matter what, after reading it at least seven times:
The Shipping News


Foods I will not eat, not ever ever, no matter how awkward it gets to refuse them:
tripe/liver/headcheese/haggis etc, bugs of any kind, anything slippery, tartare (raw beef with a raw egg? What kind of misanthrope dreamed THAT up?)


Primary vices:
judginess, hyper-sensitivity, meddling


Secondary vices:
excessive lecturing, negative thinking, intensity


Current investments:
local orthodontist’s office, summer camp, mittens, Legos


Number of cookbooks on my shelves devoted exclusively to the topic of baking bread:
at least 9


Last time I baked bread:
about a year ago


Primary sources of worry:
adolescent child’s fraught relationship with schoolwork, 2016 election circus, fate of Jon Snow


Careers I believe would be easier than being a Writer:
Supreme Court Judge, molecular biologist, NASA engineer, Governor of California


People I wish I were related to:
Chef Thomas Keller, Meryl Streep, Paul Simon, Mary Oliver, Annie Proulx


Temperature below which I feel forced to wear a winter coat:
20 degrees


Number of words written on Facebook between 2007 and 2015:


Feelings about that number:


Preferred breakfast:
mocha and a morning bun from Honey & Rye or birthday cake (anyone’s)


Exit plan if Donald Trump should be elected to American Presidency:
maybe London, maybe Montreal, maybe a remote town in Iceland


Number of seizures middle child has had since her surgery seven years ago:


Likelihood that she will have another one, according to experts at Mayo Clinic:
close to zero


Fear that every one of those experts is wrong:
less than five years ago, but still present in everyday life


Family member whose phone number has stayed the same for my entire life:


Most common astrological signs among my friends:
Pisces, Taurus, Scorpio


Fictional characters to whom I am overly and inappropriately attached:
Daenerys Targaryen, Elizabeth Bennet, Severus Snape, Lady Brienne of Tarth, Bridget Jones, Peggy Hill, Tyrion Lannister, Diane Chambers, Mr. Darcy


Willingness to participate in any school carnival for any reason ever:


Percentage of my children crying as we left the last one we attended:


Most firm beliefs:
God is real. Camp is good for kids even if they hate it. The worst mistake a woman can make is to dissolve into her family so completely that she forgets who she’s been trying to be all her life


Level of interest I have in anything the Kardashians do:


Pantry items I tend to overstock:
canned tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, honey, olive oil, vanilla beans, flour


Number of remaining grandparents:
1 (out of 4)


Number of remaining parents:
1 (out of 4)


Three things I love about my dad:
his devotion, his soulfulness, his willingness to consider any topic, no matter how esoteric


Three things I miss about my mom:
her musical voice, her gift for developing systems, her dauntlessness


Most efficient way to show me I matter to you:


Average quality of close friends:


Belief that despite the shit, life is still mostly beautiful, hopeful, meaningful, magical:
strong, strong, strong


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.


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

Waiting Room


Teary Caroline
© 2015 Marta C Drew

I am, despite this public way of telling you about it, a rather private person. I don’t mean that in the sense that I am unwilling to share vulnerable or personal feelings and experiences –obviously, I’m willing to share to the point of emotional exhibitionism. When I say I’m private, I mean that I am deliberate about what I share, how much, in what way, and with whom.  Read my journals and one of us is going to have to permanently move to Iceland. Go through my purse or my closets or my nightstand without my permission and you’re dead to me. I decide.


The problem is the waiting room.


Before you can enter some of the oldest and largest vaults at Gringotts Bank (the wizarding bank in Harry Potter for those of you who don’t read), you have to pass through a waterfall that clears away any enchantments you may be trying to use to enter the vault under false pretenses. If you have tried to conceal or change your identity, if someone or something else is controlling your behavior, if you have tried to protect yourself in any way from exposure or vulnerability to what could be inside, then it is all washed away. You are just you.


The same thing happens to anyone who enters the Children’s West Rehab Center waiting room, only it’s the air swirling around the door as you walk in that breaks all the spells, not a waterfall (which would be impractical and inconsiderate in such a cold climate). You walk in with all of your protective enchantments and it all gets blown away. Everyone sees who you are. Everyone sees what you’re dealing with.


If you are a regular, you are dealing with scooters or wheelchairs or companion dogs or leg braces that make your little peanut cry because they hurt. Or you are dealing with tiny little helmets, tiny little glasses, tiny little hearing aids. Your son cries about everything, your daughter can’t properly metabolize food. Your granddaughter has cerebral palsy, your grandson has a heart condition.


Now YOU have a heart condition.


What do you do? There was a woman once who spent the whole hour she was waiting doing yoga poses and stretches. I rolled my eyes until her son came out after his physical therapy session and I overheard her talking with the therapist about how she could help her son be more successful with eating and drinking. He was at least fifteen years old. There was a homeschooling mama with a church bell ringtone who used the time to drill her older daughter in reading; a tense, germaphobic lady who only allowed her impeccably-dressed children to touch toys she brought with her and sanitized before and after they were handled; a maniacally positive mother who practiced tap dancing and jazz routines with her five-or-six-year-old daughter, who played along but didn’t seem convinced of how much fun she was supposed to be having.


You walk in with all of your protective enchantments and it all gets blown away. Everyone sees who you are. Everyone sees what you’re dealing with.


But most of us talk. We tell each other what happened to our children, what happened to us, what keeps happening. We tell each other about the doctors who practically bound across the waiting room at Mayo to tell us surgery went well, or about that nurse at Children’s Hospital downtown who would not rest until she found a way to bathe a child without getting the electrodes in her hair wet (an elaborate system of plastic Target bags and rubber bands). We tell each other about the schools and programs we’ve found to make it all easier (horse therapy, art therapy, water therapy, music therapy) and the schools and programs that haven’t figured it out yet. For several months, my dear childhood friend Lindsay, whose son gets therapy from time to time, met me in the waiting room with coffee and we got to have a built-in Mama date every Wednesday afternoon.


Of course it’s not just mothers waiting –Thad has been one of my favorite waiting room pals. For at least a year, Caroline’s appointments coincided with his granddaughter’s, so every week, Thad and I talked cooking (he was an old-school gourmand –he made his own sausages and everything), gardening, music, antiques, parenting, traveling, families, weddings, home design, life. Thad is marvelous –I miss him. His daughter-in-law doesn’t drive and he’s retired, so he brought them to the rehab center every single week. Maybe we’ll be on the same schedule again this summer.


I wouldn’t say I’m friends with these people in the conventional sense (with the exception of Lindsay) –it’s more like we all operate the various small businesses of the same unethical, sadistic bastard. We all cry about it, we’re all degraded by it, but there’s no choice –we can’t leave; he has too much power and we’ve invested everything.


There is no point trying to control what I reveal to my waiting room colleagues –they see everything anyway, just like I see everything about them. We see each other crying and limping and dragging along with our special needs kids as if we have been stricken with the emotional equivalent of each of their physical or neurological afflictions. We have, so privacy is beside the point –it doesn’t protect us from anything except our mutual sympathy and understanding.


Maybe that’s why the protective enchantments we rely upon so heavily out in the world don’t work in the waiting room. Maybe our vulnerability is the most powerful enchantment no matter where we are.


The Art of the Apology

Easter Lily


First, a confession: I am ever-so-slightly sensitive to excessive criticism, sudden and prolonged silence, thoughtlessness, neglect, math, bad manners, misunderstandings, suggestions that I should do more housework, suggestions that I should get more exercise, suggestions that I am less than brilliant/sexy/gorgeous (all ridiculous, but still), excessive noise, reminders of my mistakes, people not eating the gorgeous food I cook for them, people not raving about the gorgeous food I cook for them, pranks (I wouldn’t if I were you), being yelled at, being yelled at in a British accent (it’s never happened, but I just know it would be worse), being unfairly blamed, violence — especially involving children, margarine (no), being made a fool of, betrayal, ungratefulness, and efforts to proselytize me. This is a partial list.


You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that I have given some careful thought over the years to the Art of the Apology. Sadly, in our every-man-for-himself/every-woman-for-herself culture, it is a rather lost art. A humble, sincere apology is a miraculous thing –an eternal thing, really. Deliver one –just one– and watch it show up on a thousand other doorsteps, echo through a thousand other lives.


Too bad apologizing makes us all feel like we’re about to die.


First, of course, you have to recognize when an apology is needed. A few easy ones to get started: if you tell everyone except your bewildered boyfriend that you have broken up with him, then you must apologize; if you unintentionally perform your famous, dead-on, viciously clever Michele Bachman imitation for one of her local campaign staffers, then you must apologize; if you act like Kim Kardashian or Snooki or are fans of either horror show, you must apologize.   If you’re the kind of boob who routinely asks grooms-to-be when they’re scheduled to have their balls removed (translation: get married), especially in the presence of their fiancees, you should assume that most of what you say is offensive and apologize every time you speak.


A pure apology is risky, excruciating, soul-expanding; like the best works of art, it’s a shard from your own broken heart used to rebuild someone else’s. 


Once you are aware that you’ve caused injury or offense, you must decide if and how much that actually matters to you; without sincerity, your apology is worth nothing. If you fully intend to keep on choosing the trappings of the world over the people in it, if you fully intend to keep on using the shards of your own broken heart to break everyone else’s, if you fully intend to keep clinging too tight or running too fast or getting too emotional or getting too rational –whatever it is you do when you’re most afraid –then there’s no point apologizing; you’ll never be done and everyone will know you don’t mean it.


But if you do mean it …if you know you’ll keep making the same mistakes and re-breaking the same hearts but you really want the chance to try again anyway, then here are the kind of words people long to hear when they’ve been wounded:


“I’m so sorry I hurt you. I never want to hurt you –you’re important to me. I know I criticized you/neglected you/yelled at you in a Southern accent…and I know I’ve done that more than once. I was afraid/angry/lonely/sad about ______ and I took it out on you. I imagine it hurts a little bit more every time I behave like this and I hate that. Please forgive me and let me try and make it better.”


If you’re like me, your hands will shake a little bit (or a lot) when you apologize like this. Your peripheral vision might close in for a second or two and you’ll hear a high-pitched ringing in your ears. Your chest will burn, your voice will crack, your bones will feel like they’re melting. You’ll wonder fleetingly if this is a heart attack…maybe a stroke. A seizure?


Yes. All of them. Humbling yourself enough to say you’re sorry and really mean it feels like every physical affliction you’ve ever seen on Grey’s Anatomy (we all know you’ve seen at least two seasons). A pure apology is risky, excruciating, soul-expanding; like the best works of art, it’s a shard from your own broken heart used to rebuild someone else’s.  That’s why we always remember genuine art. That’s why we always remember a genuine apology. And that’s why both are so damned expensive.

Athletic Prowess

Henry backyard closeup


I confess a certain indifference when it comes to my eight-year-old’s swimming career. Since he’s young, I’m still cherishing hopes that he may one day abandon sports altogether and become a musical theater performer like a proper Gypsy (of course the WASP in me hopes equally that he’ll make enough money to stay out of our basement).


The main problem, if I’m being honest, is that I am out of my element as a Pool Mom. I believe I would make a brilliant and terrifying Stage Mother, but I can’t get my head around the values and customs of pool culture. I see the other parents at meets and practices, draped in team-logo performance fleece, watching the events with equal parts intensity and stoicism like owls or eagles.


I, on the other hand, watch with equal parts amusement  (I can’t help it –the kids who swim diagonally across the pool make me giggle) and confusion (is THAT my kid? No. That one? Wait, did he win? Oh, that’s not mine either) –more like a monkey or a lemur than an owl or an eagle. Once in a while, one of the Swim Elders will generously and soberly remark that Henry’s freestyle or kicks are coming along nicely. “Okay! Thanks!” I say, realizing too late that I’m not supposed to be smiling. Too much smiling –forgive the pun—is frowned upon.


Obviously, I can appreciate the inherent value of sports for children, though my own athletic prowess peaked at about seven.  For two glorious years at Wooddale Elementary school, I enjoyed a minor celebrity as the most flexible girl in my little after-school gymnastics class; I could sit in the splits for HOURS. My parents, I’m sure, were seeing red flags –that’s NOT the reputation you want your daughter to have once adolescence begins.


I see the other parents at meets and practices, draped in team-logo performance fleece, watching the events with equal parts intensity and stoicism like owls or eagles.


They needn’t have worried.  By 14 or 15, my marginally-promising gymnastics career had been cut brutally short by my boobs, my height, and the fact that I am not at all athletic. I think I stuck with gymnastics until I was maybe 10, when my nice, gentle tumbling instruction ended and my parents blindly enrolled me in a cut-throat, hyper-competitive, Mary Lou Retton cult gymnastics school inspired, I’m guessing, by the Soviets or North Koreans.


Once I became a tumbling school dropout, I quit organized sports entirely, took up baking, and fell into a comfortable rhythm of music, boy-craziness, and pretending to have my period during gym. Pre-boobs, I had been a fast runner, a good swimmer, and a decent skater. Once junior high rolled around, I had more or less accepted that I wasn’t athletic. To compensate, I made a kind of art form out of pretending to participate in ball sports during P.E. by running back and forth a lot, making it clear by shielding my face with my arms that I was unavailable for passes.


This established a kind of lovely symbiosis with the girls in my class who actually liked sports and wanted to be stars. If by some freak accident or misunderstanding I ended up with the ball, I would immediately pass it to one of them and they would get to do whatever unfathomable, sporty tricks occurred to them. Lord knows no such tricks ever occurred to me. They wanted glory, the opportunity to shine; I wanted anonymity, the assurance that the goal I may or may not have scored for the opposing team would be forgiven and never mentioned again. Win-win.


So you can appreciate, I’m sure, how the whole Sports Parent gig is a bit of a reach for me. Most of those other pool parents were athletes themselves when they were growing up –if not in competitive swimming, then in some other sport, like basketball or at least cross-country skiing. While they were doing drills and being coached how not to cry when they ruined everything (I would never have mastered that), I was singing sad songs on Katie Baumgartner’s karaoke machine and writing horrifying love poems to boys who probably really wished I wouldn’t.


There is a certain athleticism to it –you can’t imagine how much speed and agility it takes to make sure you get to the other side of your high school in time to casually walk some cute boy to his next class and then book it to yours, next door to the one you just left.  Endurance? I can cry for DAYS. Can you do that? No. All you can do is skate and fight and flick a tiny black disk past a mummy-giant into a butterfly net all at the same time. If only that were as impressive.  Don’t feel bad –not everyone can be an emotional athlete.


Motherhood arrived, visiting upon me a ghost-childhood made up of the shadows and echoes of the first one. She follows me everywhere, reminding me where I’m weak, have always been weak.


And not everyone can be a real one. I thought I had come to terms, more or less, with my lack of athleticism. I thought I was done with PE and all the sports activities –forced or at least pressured– that naturally come with childhood and adolescence. I thought I had grown into a worthwhile human being despite that particular deficit and I thought I could leave it comfortably in the past.


Then Motherhood arrived, visiting upon me a ghost-childhood made up of the shadows and echoes of the first one. She follows me everywhere, reminding me where I’m weak, have always been weak. She likes to play scenes from my early life while I’m trying to help my kids with math or teach them not to beg for love or friendship from people who won’t freely give it. See? she whispers and rattles as I feel my way in the dark, you’re far from figuring this out yourself. They know. And so they won’t trust you, even when you do know what you’re talking about. She can be mean, this phantom childhood, and loud.


And she really likes going with me to the pool, where the other parents practically dangle off the balcony where we’re all corralled, watching every stroke with their silent intensity. Don’t lean over like that, the ghost warns. You’ll fall –you know what you’re like. And besides, it’s not like you know what to watch for. You can’t help him with this.


And it’s true, I can’t. The Swim Elders can probably see that, which doesn’t particularly bother me, and Henry can also probably see that, which does bother me. Because I know, my ghost childhood has reminded me, that the scariest moments of childhood aren’t the ones when you don’t know what to do –they’re the ones when you can see that your parents don’t know what to do.


So I have to discipline myself to let my little boy witness my inexperience, my insecurity, my vulnerability, so he can get stronger. Not so he can become a stronger swimmer –I have no idea what will make him a stronger swimmer. What I do know: getting comfortable with vulnerability –both in himself and in others– will make him a stronger friend, a stronger teammate, a stronger person. I can help him with this. Then perhaps when he’s a Swim Elder himself, watching tiny swimmers make their way diagonally across the pool, someone will ask him why he’s smiling and laughing so much and he’ll say, “Oh, I learned that from my mom.”

Self Preservation


Marta b&w apple orchard 2006


“The best thing a mother can teach her children is how to need her as little as possible,” I like to tell an imaginary television camera in the car after dropping Lizzie off at preschool. “I am a mother, yes, but also a woman, a person, a soul worth growing for its own sake. If I lose sight of that, I will have failed both myself and my children.” I picture myself saying it to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, and to Barbara Walters (she’d LOVE it) on 20/20. I will wear my hair down, dress beautifully but not ostentatiously, and listen as much as I speak (this last part would most likely be the hardest to pull off).


Then someone honks at me –the light has turned green. I have to stop fantasizing so I don’t start mowing down old people on the sidewalk with my sexy minivan.


Regardless of whether I ever get the opportunity to say it on camera, I have always believed we women must nurture our original selves as we are raising our children, if for no other reason than because mothering demands nothing less than a whole, enlightened, educated, talented, healthy, flexible woman. Still, having as much as possible to give our families shouldn’t be the only reason for preserving and growing our essential selves . We should be our own reason.


If I do my job well, my children will gradually leave me. First they will stop asking me to get them brefgast and Cheery-lows and pisketti. Then they will stop coming to me when the mean stister called the nother stister Cookie Face (they find this SO insulting) or when someone can’t find his Lego Harry Potter’s microscopic hand and wand. Next they’ll start turning to their friends when they have a secret or an idea. Or when they need feedback about whether something is cool or not (even at the height of my powers, I would never be able to help them with that). Eventually, I won’t see them for weeks at a time as they hole up in their rooms listening to mopey music and/or writing poems to boys or girls who don’t know they exist. They’ll go off to college or on tour with their basement bands, calling only to tell me he’s changed his major to celebrity portrait painting or that she needs more tattoo money.


Having as much as possible to give our families shouldn’t be the only reason for preserving and growing our essential selves . We should be our own reason.


This is all as it should be, but then what will happen to me? Will I be able to find myself under all the layers of anxiety, impatience, indignity, and confusion pressing on my tender psyche over the years? Will  I have raised a good, strong self at the same time? Will I ever be able to think about anything else besides what or who might hurt my babies? Once I have the freedom to do whatever I want, will I know what it is?


This weekend, the Drewlets all left for two days and two nights on sleepovers with the grandparents so Brian and I could work on home projects. I returned to my quiet, empty house after the last round of forgot-to-give-you-this minivan deliveries and felt relief, yes, but also a low-grade, buzzing uneasiness –the kind I get when I’m sitting in a movie and am suddenly unsure whether I unhooked my iPod and locked my car. I THINK I took care of everything but I’m not SURE I took care of everything.


Would Henry get enough sleep at his grandparents’ house to recover from his tiny man-cold (the one that had him moaning and keening like a Sicilian widow the night before) so he’d be healthy enough for his swim meet on Saturday?  Would he be as scared as last time? Would Lizzie refuse (again) to eat her dinner and get hypoglycemic in the middle of the night? Did I remember to warn my dad about that? Would Caroline stay in her little bed at my mom’s house all night? Or would she start wandering at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning like she did last winter, maybe get hurt in the big dark house and not be found until morning?


A rich imagination is a great gift for a writer and a horrible curse for a mother. My memory is the same way. You may say my fears are irrational. You may be right. But I have a picture in my mind of Henry in the back seat of my car before a swim meet last winter, tears in his other-worldly eyes, trying to take deep breaths, get on top of his nerves, be brave enough to at least go inside and change into his suit. I have a picture in my mind of my Lizzie, sweaty and shaking at 11:00 at night as we tried to feed her a granola bar and get her to tell us who I was, who Brian was.


I have so many pictures in my mind of my vulnerable Caroline that I don’t even know which one to mention here. In my memory, she always has electrode glue in her hair and is crying “all done that part!” as the nurses try a second time to get the IV in. If I am a pathological worrier, I am forgiven. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve had to do over the last five years to get my kids, safe and whole, to now, to Grandma and Grandpa’s houses this weekend. Unless you have little people in your care. Then you would believe it — and have probably lived it.


My Empty Nest Preview Weekend reassured me I’m still mostly here, mostly reconcilable with my original self.


I worry about me, too. Am I going to be okay or am I permanently damaged by the particularly intense mothering I’ve had to do? Can my original self and my modern self get along? I felt almost awkward being alone with myself on Friday night, like I was hosting for the weekend a cousin I had been close to in childhood but now barely knew. What did she like to do? How should I entertain her? Would she be willing to eat Cap’n Crunch? (I hoped so, because there wasn’t much else in the pantry.)


What would she think about the obscure reality shows Brian and I like to watch these days, like Storage Wars and BBQ Pitmasters? Would she judge me? SHOULDN’T she judge me? Would she be able to pee without a panel of tiny commentators standing in the bathroom with her? Would walking through a greenhouse or garden center make her feel instantly contented and hopeful like it used to or would it take more than that? What would it take? Was she still likely to skip meals if she was really into some creative or organizational project? I knew her so well back then, but who was she now? How would we pass the time? Would she lecture me about getting some exercise?


Well yeah, she lectured me a little bit (my original self loves to lecture –we have that in common). It turned out that my modern self, the soul I’ve been trying when I can to grow and nurture alongside my children, is mostly compatible with my original self. The me I believed I had abandoned in the Children’s Hospital ICU in 2008 was still there.


I saw her at about 1:30 on Sunday afternoon when I realized I’d been so intent on cleaning out the laundry room that I had eaten almost nothing. We walked through Bachman’s together in search of houseplants, my original self and I, our heart slowing down and filling up; it didn’t take any more than that to restore either one of us. Relief. Yes, of course the Original Marta was willing to eat Cap’n Crunch –I needn’t have worried about that one– and was most impressed with Modern Marta for thinking to eat it at night with ice-cold whole milk, which is way more delicious and superhealthy than ice cream. Peeing without an audience went just fine for us too, thank you for asking.


Begonias August 2011


My Empty Nest Preview Weekend reassured me I’m still mostly here, mostly reconcilable with my original self. I’ve been taking better care of her than I thought –let’s hope the same is true for my kids. She was disappointed to see that I was buying faux-plants, which she considered tacky and unworthy of our green thumb. I explained the house is dark, we need some shots of green, I bought convincing ones, and we could never keep real English ivies or ferns alive in the winter anyway. She couldn’t argue with that.


My modern self woke up at 5:45 on Saturday morning, freaked out about whether Lizzie had fallen out of bed or Caroline had wandered out of her room. The old me reassured the new me that they were definitely all safe, everything was fine, I was fine, and we should go back to sleep. I was glad she was there.


The woman I used to be, before the tumors and broken hearts and vulnerability of my maternal experience, is still around. She’s still the same in essentials, but she’s grown, of course, into this modern self I have now. They’re both me. I’m wholly me –the woman and the mother. I still don’t believe my children are the only reason I’m here; I haven’t changed my mind about that. I’m supposed to remember the other interests and relationships that fasten me to this beautiful, mysterious place and develop them so I don’t start needing my children more just when they have finally begun to need me less.


I am supposed to write and garden and bake and sing and return to camp whenever I can and stay close to the friends and sisters and brothers who will let me. And I will, because I am a person, a woman, a soul worth growing for its own sake.


Yet the soul I’ve grown is a mother’s soul, blooming most fully and miraculously on bathroom floors and hospital beds, in dark hallways and parking lots.  The self I have worked so hard to preserve is first and most essentially a maternal self. There is a woman within the mother and a mother within the woman, nurturing each other, needing each other.



Jessica Heldman and Marta Drew


I met Jessica in fifth grade, in Mr. O’Donnell’s class. Mr. O’Donell’s classroom management strategy boiled down to a stopwatch and the misty promise of a trip to Wendy’s on a school day if we could keep the time spent misbehaving to a minimum. I am sure Jess and I rolled our eyes at this, but ours was never merely a giggle-behind-the teacher’s back and shop for earrings kind of friendship –our connection was about shared experience and understanding.


We were war buddies from the start. The enemy wore Guess jeans, Esprit sweaters, and the Little Orphan Annie perm that was mysteriously popular at the time.  They whispered threats down into our foxholes and trenches; they invited us to peace talks they never planned to attend; they prowled the halls, the library, the bathrooms and schoolyard like snipers –nowhere was safe.  We huddled behind playground equipment or next to the building, trembling with anxiety and righteous indignation. What made girls act like this? We couldn’t imagine, so we talked –about her years at private school, my parents’ divorce, whether the trip to Wendy’s would ever really happen (it did; Jessica was absent that day).


On the days Jessica wasn’t at school, my senses buzzed from overstimulation. I projected my paranoia onto the apathetic kid who stored his boogers on an index card in his desk, onto fellow victims, onto Mr. O’Donnell himself. It was all very Apocalypse Now.  Jessica was more loyal than I was at first, so the friendship benefited me more than it did her.


Jessica feels things like I do and she’ll go ahead and say it: “What is going ON? Why do I have to accept this?”


I’m part Gypsy, part WASP, which means my battle instincts have always been convoluted –part of me wanted to cut the little bitches with a pearl-handled knife, cursing their families down through the generations; the other part wanted to insult their taste in art and music and imply that they came from new money. I usually ended up throwing my own allies under the bus in my confusion and I’m sure Jessica was one of them, but we stayed close –we understood each other.


As we got older –she experimenting with cigarettes and Children’s Theater, I reading dirty novels and stealing change from my stepdad to buy Domino’s pizzas after school –our enemy shifted from the garden-variety alpha-girl to our crippling self-doubt. Who was going to tell us whether or not we were pretty? How much would electric blue mascara and zinc-pink lipstick help? What in the hell were those stupid 4’3″ junior high boys LOOKING FOR?


We lay in her room on Camelback Drive asking these questions over and over again. We didn’t get answers, but knowing that Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were struggling with some of the same issues helped a little bit. Having each other helped more. She made me laugh so hard –she still does.  More than that, though, Jessica feels things like I do and she’ll go ahead and say it: “What is going ON? Why do I have to accept this?”


That shouldn’t be so hard to find, but of course it is.


I’ve been in and out of touch with Jessica over the years –a friendship this long will always have its seasons, so I don’t think either of us worries about it. Sometimes I go find her, sometimes she comes to find me, but we’ll always be able to reconnect because we’re the same in all the important ways –in temperament, values, sincerity, and history.


I’m thinking about her because we talked tonight. I hadn’t heard her voice in a while, so I had that time-travelly feeling I tend to get when I talk to someone I knew in childhood or adolescence about how the kids and spouses are doing. For a second it feels like we’re pretending, talking about what we imagine life with husbands and children would be like. But then the tide comes back in and we’re talking about grownup stuff like how it feels to send the kids off to school for the first time or how to balance what we give our families materially with what we give them spiritually. And now I feel time-travelly again, because though we may not have talked about these particular topics as we hid from the alpha girls on the playground, we would have talked about their 10-year-old equivalents, like how it would feel to make a mean girl cry for the first time and how to balance who you want to be with who you have to be.


I hope you have a friend like this, one who’s always in it with you, who is scared of and inspired by the same things you are year after year, who is willing to sit talking with you while you work it all out, trembling with anxiety and righteous indignation until you don’t know whether you’re 10 or 17 or 38. It doesn’t matter as long as you know you’re not alone.



It Gets Better


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


But you ARE.


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


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


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


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