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

Rules for Turning 40

Gypsy Hausfrau portrait small edited

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Don’t mistake fear for intuition. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

9.  Keep laughing about as much as you can.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Faith

Canoe Bay Organic Garden Summer 2015

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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.

Forgiveness

Henry and injured Brown Cat

 

My (essentially) sweet, impulsive, emotional, affectionate, pushy, silly Caroline has elevated common sibling torture to an art form. Her performances are startling avant-garde masterpieces, at once spare and imaginative (“boop boop boop boop…Henry, listen to me! Boop boop boop boop boop…”).  Her artistic integrity is evident in each production as she tries to find the places where love and pain intersect.

 

Henry, who was already bitterly disappointed to see that the baby sister we brought home was not a baby elephant like he’d hoped (she felt like one), has not exactly warmed to her in the almost six years since. She has assaulted him, looted for candy in his room with Lizzie (“Dat’s Henny’s chockit,” they said soberly when I busted them shortly after Easter one year, their marshmallowy cheeks bulging with chocolate eggs and M&Ms. “Not yours!”), wrecked his artwork and books and toys.

 

It’s hard. We got him a lock for his room, which protected his things when he wasn’t around to protect them himself, but then one night when he wouldn’t let her in to look at his fish, she tore down the carefully drawn and labeled Egyptian symbols he had posted on the outside of his door. Nothing is safe, nowhere feels safe for him here. I know how he feels –she does it to all of us. We tell him her brain doesn’t work the same as other people’s, that she doesn’t understand how she’s hurting him. It doesn’t change anything  –life with a little sister who had brain surgery is really hard sometimes. Seven nights out of ten he prays for God to help Caroline’s brain catch up to everyone else’s.

 

He looked at us for a moment and I watched his righteous anger recede, gather force and volume as it  transformed, then crash to shore as regret.

 

A couple of nights ago she got a hold of his book of charcoal drawing paper and colored in it. It was a blank sheet –she left his beautiful drawings alone– but all the damage she’s done over the last few years has built up, given him a hair trigger, so he yelled and cried until she was yelling and crying herself, scared and confused about why he was mad at her for coloring on plain paper. She didn’t know.

 

We told him as gently as we could that he had overdone it, that no harm had come to anything important and we could always buy him more paper. We told him we understood why he was mad at her for taking his book but that she had no way of knowing it was any different from the other paper in our house; he should go apologize.  He looked at us for a moment and I watched his righteous anger recede, gather force and volume as it  transformed, then crash to shore as regret. He lay back on the floor, tears dripping onto the carpet. “I feel so horrible,” he said in a broken voice that has rattled around my mama’s heart for all the days since. “I’m the worst brother ever.” He lay there for a few minutes, his twiggy little shoulders shaking, far more devastated by what he had done than by anything that had ever been done to him.

 

A few minutes later he went up and apologized. She pardoned him without hesitation, returned his hug, happily accepted his invitation to watch Shaun the Sheep. But even after she and Lizzie were already heaped on the couch giggling at the goat who eats bricks and drinks out of the toilet, we heard Henry crying at the top of the stairs. We coaxed him down and he curled up on the living room couch with me. “She loves you,” I whispered, “and of course you love her. She makes mistakes, you make mistakes. You forgive her, she forgives you. The only part that’s missing is you forgiving yourself.” I whispered this to both of us in the semi-darkness.

 

“It’s hard,” he choked.

 

“I know, Peanut, but forgiving yourself is really important. Otherwise your mistakes get in the way of you accepting love.”

 

Forgiveness is the only place where love and pain intersect.