Home: A Collection


Red House First Snow 110613
© 2015 Marta C Drew


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


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


Mama's Cranberry Bread 112614
© 2015 Marta C Drew


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


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


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


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


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


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


“Can you do this?”


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


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


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


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


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


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


Outdoor Winter Pots
© 2015 Marta C Drew



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


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



A Year

Corn Tomato Gratin Lunch 2011

A year is not as long now as it used to be. Twenty years ago, a year was a long-term relationship, seniority at Victoria’s Secret, enough time to become BFFs. Now it’s not even long enough to bother introducing myself to the neighbors or unpacking my wedding china.


Back then, a year was long enough to fall in and out of love six or seven times (sometimes with the same wrong boy, sometimes with several wrong boys), decide (for real this time!) to pursue eleven or twelve different careers, drape my ratty Uptown walkup in pretty fabrics and feel perfectly at home. I don’t remember giving a thought to the next place until a month or two before the lease was up. It didn’t matter — home was wherever I took my boom box and Pier One votive collection.


Now I’m here, my stuff is here, my family is here in this house, but I still don’t really feel like I live here. This is mostly my fault –I’m not invested because I’m too aware that we’re only here for a year. I’m almost 40 now, so a year is an entirely different unit of time than it used to be –longer than the time it took for my little peanut to complete preschool, kindergarten, and 1st-3rd grades combined, but not as long as it takes to stuff my Duchesses in their jackets, snowpants, hats, mittens (“I can’t find my ‘nother mitten, Mama!”), boots, and scarves before they tell me they have to tinkle. It’s just a year, I think to myself, so why bother doing much of anything except waiting for the next thing, the permanent thing?


I have never been good at living in the moment –I am forever looking way back or far ahead.


A disposable year …that’s how I’ve been thinking about it. Something like the mandatory canoe trip at camp every summer: it wasn’t a trip I would ever have chosen, I didn’t love every minute of it, but it showed me some rare, wild beauty and deepened my friendships with the other girls, so I was glad enough to have had the experience in the end.


Still, I liked it better looking back on it from the other side (that first post-canoe-trip shower was heavenly). Once it was over, I could fully enjoy the camp experience I had actually signed up for — sailing in adorable outfits with full hair and makeup in case one of the boys’ boats got close enough to see me, movies in Senior Lodge on rainy nights, and winning the extra scoop of ice cream with camp chocolate sauce in horsengoggle. And sitting out on the balcony of Clubhouse during cabin meeting with Liz, laughing our asses off because nobody knew where we were. And lying on my back in LT cabin singing “Take it to the Limit” by the Eagles with Marlys and Betsy. Oh, and bagel dogs –I’d go back to camp just for those.


Camp…sigh …I digress.


I have never been good at living in the moment –I am forever looking way back or far ahead. I suppose that’s a hazard of being a creative writer-type; I need psychological distance from the events in my life before I can write about them (I’d be a horrible reporter). I get through whatever there is to get through and make sense of it later. Spending a few years in hell mode will do that to you, too.


It’s a good strategy for processing trauma and intensity, but when the whole family is sitting in a dark movie theater wearing 3D glasses, giggling at Madagascar III, I want to be there with them. When Julie comes over eating Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch out of a tupperware container to sit with me on my porch and ask where the hell the summer has gone, I want to be there with her.


Even though I didn’t actually sign up for a year in a rental house, I want to participate in this softer, easier time in my own life as its happening …as Brian and I are dating again, as I am reading novels and puttering in the kitchen and yard again, as a year –maybe for the last time– is once again stretching out for me into a unit of time long enough to feel perfectly at home, to be glad for the experience.



gnarled tree


I’ll be honest: I have never been known for maintaining my dignity during a breakup. Breaking up with my emotionally withholding cheapskate college boyfriend took me about 57 tries and I suspect the breakup with my camp boyfriend has been set to music (with harmonica solo) and sung as a cautionary tale at Opening Campfire every year for those considering relationships with the boys across the lake.


I cling, I chase, I disappear, come back, am overcome with tenderness and nostalgia, try briefly to resurrect the original feelings. I make passionate speeches and write long letters and cry –my friends’ eyes bug out of their heads from listening to me process every interaction, every feeling (I have at least 34 feelings about something as simple as Honeycrisp apples; you can imagine how many I experience in a relationship). There is no holding my head high, tossing my hair over my shoulder and letting my happiness and success be my revenge. I let the loss wash over me, knock me down. I roll around in it for several months, burn through a preposterous rebound. Finally I take a long shower, go buy some gorgeous new underwear and high heels, change my hair and perfume and the music I listen to, and it’s over once and for all. Mine is not a pretty breakup method, but it is thorough; when I’m done, I’m done.


Turns out I act much the same when I’m breaking up with a house. Yesterday, while I was packing the kitchen, I stared into one of the empty cabinets for a while, trying to remember how I felt when I was moving things into it –before the washing machine flood, before Kyle’s first and only visit here the month before he died, before Caroline’s illness and all of the family fights and misunderstandings that naturally grow out of grief and fear. I suppose I must have felt hope and excitement about this house when I moved in, relief at having returned to my beloved Minnesota, to my friends and family after five years away. Truthfully, I don’t remember –I can’t resurrect those original feelings.


There is no holding my head high, tossing my hair over my shoulder and letting my happiness and success be my revenge. I let the loss wash over me, knock me down.


People have been asking me if I’m going to miss this house at all when I leave it. Maybe, but not right away. If anything, I imagine I will miss not liking it; for a writer, this friction between oneself and one’s surroundings is a creative blessing, like a grain of sand in an oyster. I worry about the kind of writing I will produce if I get too comfortable.  I can’t imagine missing this house –I blame it for all of the pain I experienced while it was mine. I know that’s not fair or rational but I already told you, I don’t work that hard at being fair during a breakup.


Yet I am grateful to this house, I suppose, for being honest with me, even if it hurt. It showed me who I could depend on, who would come over and watch Henry and Lizzie when Caroline had an emergency EEG; who would come over and help me clean my house when I came home to a mess after Kyle’s memorial service; who would make me beautiful, thoughtful surgery-day care packages when Caroline got her tumor removed; who would listen and listen and listen and listen to the same topics I haven’t been able to resolve for YEARS; who would like or comment on every single blog post; who would encourage and lecture and hound me to write; who would walk me, step by step, through the ways in which she would nurture me if she could be with me after Kyle’s death and during Caroline’s illness; who would make me laugh at the parts I didn’t think I could laugh at; who would just love me and love me and love me no matter how many mistakes we both made.


I do not love this house, but I love what it has given me: clever, interesting, soulful guests, both real and virtual; a clear understanding of what I need to feel at home, no matter what else is going on in my life; a deeper, more authentic relationship with God; and a stronger, braver, wiser version of myself. I may have spent the last six years clinging, disappearing, making speeches, writing long letters, and crying, but I’m still here, still able to laugh and pray and hope and love my people. There’s plenty of dignity in that.



Toward and Away

Gypsy Hausfrau Header Image Edited and Resized 101715


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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.



Chapel Path II


Henry’s prayer the other night:

“Dear God, thank you for my family and my friends…and my dead fish, who really did live with us for a long time [two years]. Please help the people who have a hard time seeing their blessings…even me, really.”


Sometimes it takes a nine-year-old (though his soul is so much older) to remind a rather crabby, complainy, self-pitying suburban Mama to be more grateful. Of course that would be ever-so-much easier if I didn’t have to clean up so much poop, but the lesson is still a good one.


We have had  at least 15 showings since our house went on the market and each one takes years off my life.  The laundry is done every day, the beds are made every day, I vacuum and dust and clean the glass every day. It’s unnatural.  I don’t think I’ve cooked a meal that really tastes like anything for over a month, lest the scent of garlic or spices linger and offend the delicate senses of a potential buyer. I caught Lizzie snoozing on the floor in her room the other day and when I asked her why she wasn’t resting on her bed, she said “I didn’t want to make any lumps.”

She’s four.


So I’m sure you understand why I want the whole shit show over with. Last night I thought it might be –there was a second showing scheduled from 7:00 to 8:00. I prepped the hell out of this place –dusted, vacuumed, threw the windows open, placed a big gorgeous hydrangea plant in the dining room to make it look like a plant could actually survive in there (it couldn’t), polished and yelled at my husband and disinfected and shrieked at my children and smoothed and cursed the assholes who hadn’t bought our house yet and shined and ranted about all the tantrum-throwing, women-hating jackasses poisoning our culture lately until the whole place looked gorgeous and I looked like Charlize Theron in Monster.


Sometimes it takes a nine-year-old (though his soul is so much older) to remind a rather crabby, complainy, self-pitying suburban Mama to be more grateful.


Then I went over to my mom’s house to drink and eat dinner. And wait. And drink. And do you want to know what those seven-o-clock-on-a-fucking-Sunday-scheduling assholes did? They chose someone else’s house to buy. Assholes. I hate them. Wait, what was I writing about? Oh yes…gratitude. And blessings.


I can acknowledge that I’m one of the people Henry is praying for. Well, me and the tantrum-throwing, women-hating jackasses –they can’t see their blessings either. I know blessings are a popular idea right now –rain is supposed to be a blessing, money and  newborn babies and starry nights and finding what you thought you lost are all supposed to be blessings –but I don’t think blessings are objects or experiences or even people.


I think blessings are the divine gifts –love, faith, hope, charity, gratitude, humility– that transform and give meaning to objects and experiences and relationships. They’re not really something you see, they’re a way of seeing, they are the light itself. Blessings are like flashlights, so no wonder they’re so easy to lose track of –who ever remembers where they left the stupid thing last time they used it? It’s easier to go out and get a new one than find the one you misplaced, except there’s really only one flashlight in everyone’s life. You ever noticed that? No matter which one I’m using, it shines the same light, made up of all the places and objects and people I’ve ever illuminated with every flashlight I’ve ever used. Flashlights, like all light, like all blessings, have shared memory.


Every time I turn on the blue Maglite we keep in our laundry room (I think), I see every path and field and dock and cabin at Camp Lake Hubert with it, every house I’ve ever lived in, every campsite in the Boundary Waters, every inch of the dark road to and from our cabins at Family Camp that I’ve walked with every one of my cousins at some point or another, the unfamiliar woods I traveled through with Mary last September when we went to art camp.


I think blessings are the divine gifts –love, faith, hope, charity, gratitude, humility– that transform and give meaning to objects and experiences and relationships.


It doesn’t matter that I didn’t have the blue Maglite then; it’s the light that remembers. That’s how blessings are –they connect you to your memories, your experiences, the places and people who matter most, and then connect them to each other.  “Seeing your blessings” isn’t really accurate; blessings are the light by which we see everything else. The term should be “seeing WITH blessings” and it’s a discipline, keeping track of that light and remembering to bring it with you.


I know this. I know that if I consistently shine faith and love and gratitude on these tense weeks, then I’ll be able to wander around the haunted house I’m trying to sell and see more than the shadows and ghosts.  I’ll see GramBea, my mom, my aunts and girl cousins sitting around my kitchen table eating brunch the day after Christmas; Brian and Caroline snuggled on the couch after one of Caroline’s EEGs, the glue still in her hair, a tender, slightly broken-hearted but still optimistic expression on her daddy’s face (he was right); Henry tucked into his parents’ big bed, a little sister on each side, reading them a book and asking thoughtful little questions (“what’s that? Yes, that’s cheese. Good! What color is the cheese?”); my dad playing tickle spider with my kids by the front door; Julie doing my dishes, helping me clean up, holding me on the laundry room floor when I had just come back from Kyle’s memorial service.


I’ll see all of that with the same light that comes from Camp Lake Hubert and Family Camp and all the other places I’ve called home and all the people who inhabited those places.  And I’ll see that even this dark house has given me some new light to bring with me, by which to see the next one.




At least once a year, I like to trade the brooding isolation of my Upper-Midwestern life for the relaxed togetherness of a Southern one with the Wrights of College Street, our dear friends who live in Macon, Georgia.


The South is a deep source of comfort, beauty, and fascination for me: Bluegrass music is bluegrassier, booze is boozier, sultry is sultrier. Cherry blossoms float through the trees, azaleas pink the edges of Georgian lawns, and English ivy drapes itself over houses, trees, ironwork fences. Today, when an old house up the street went on the market, the whole neighborhood trooped up to see it, waving at every car that passed, inviting more neighbors to come along, reciting the history of the house like a catechism.


Bridget and I like to sing together –music is an essential element of our friendship– so we sang “Wagon Wheel” and “Make You Feel My Love” while we made vanilla ice cream for root beer floats and pesto for pasta with grilled sausages. Children, husbands, cats, dogs, and neighbors drifted in and out with the pollen as we worked, looking for a towel, a taste of ice cream, a beer. There is always a  feeling here of a collective Southern life, lived by and for everyone at once. Everyone belongs.


Cherry blossoms float through the trees, azaleas pink the edges of Georgian lawns, and English ivy drapes itself over houses, trees, ironwork fences.


After dinner, root beer floats, and an under-eight kitchen dance party, the children get sorted into sleepover venues (girls here, boys at the neighbors’, then one girl at the neighbors’, then eventually both girls and both boys at the neighbors’).  When the babies are all settled, the five adults leave them to their dreaming and wander out on foot into the starry darkness.


The neighbors greet us at their gates or from their porches as we pass. The people two doors down –a chef and her engineer husband –are just back from the Cherry Blossom Festival street party downtown. The chef sniffs the air  –“Who smells like tacos?” She giggles when we tell her no tacos –it’s the garlic from the pesto she’s probably smelling– and launches into a story about her recent job switch:


“The owner of that restaurant, she was all –” she screws up her face, kisses the air several times, and smacks her own round bottom. “Not a very nice person. Did you go see that house for sale? You gonna buy it?”


We move on. Michael and Greg point out architectural features, local history factoids, and signs of water damage on the historic houses we pass and then we spend about 25 minutes skulking around a foreclosure. Katie tries the windows (locked), Michael turns on the flashlight app on his iPhone and ducks into the crawl space under the front porch. “Oh boy.” Greg joins him to inspect and they spend several happy minutes commenting on the structural integrity of the house. This, apparently, is a common Macon pastime.


On the way home, around 11:00 pm, we pass Leslie drinking wine on her porch. “Y’all just gettin’ back? You wanna come in for a nightcap?” We follow her into her kitchen, where she pours wine and fetches beer and speculates about a neighborhood scandal: “It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s just weird. Why is she going over there all the time? What am I supposed to say when people ask me?”


“Just say you don’t know, ‘cuz you don’t.” Bridget gives me a secret smile and Leslie drops the subject, opens a container of homemade salsa and a bag of chips. “Oh you like peanuts, don’t you,” she says to Katie, and opens a bag just for her. We crowd around the island in her pretty little kitchen with the black and white checkered floor and cabinets the color of maple syrup and talk about Macon.


Quality is not linked to condition when Southerners choose a house to restore; it’s linked to history and endurance.


“I tell you what, Macon’s the best-kept secret in the South,” says Greg. I can’t tell if everyone else is aware of raising their glasses. “Took me a couple years to believe house prices down here. Best-kept secret.”


“These old houses are worth fighting for. You gonna buy the Buafo house, Michael?” asks Leslie. She looks at me. “He wants to save them all.”


Of course he does –to preserve those houses is to preserve the lives lived within them, still flowing through the old halls and rooms like a current.  Quality is not linked to condition when Southerners choose a house to restore; it’s linked to history and endurance. If the roof needs replacing, the second floor has to be reconfigured, and the whole place seems unstable, but it has a gorgeous view and original woodwork, then it’s worth restoring. If the windows are a mess and  there are giant cracks from floor to ceiling but it’s been there for a hundred years and lets in a lot of light, then it’s worth restoring. If it’s kind of dark and lonely-looking but pretty in its way and just needs a little love to be beautiful again, it’s worth restoring.


So I’ll keep coming back here –to sing, to cook, to wander around in old houses, to participate in this collective Southern life, to remind myself that I’m always worthy of restoration.



Signs of Spring

Spring in Pamela Park

After about five solid years of winter, I’m seeing signs of spring –not necessarily in Mother Nature, who is usually still sleepy and moody in Minnesota this time of year anyway– but in my own nature. For example, I saw a heavily lacquered Barbie plow her Escalade between two lesser automobiles (instead of patiently waiting her turn) at after-school pickup yesterday and it only irritated me for about seven minutes; 25 is the norm. I have switched from Adele and Bon Iver to Madonna and Fleetwood Mac, watered my plants two weeks in a row, and bought two articles of clothing that aren’t black or grey. Spring!


Really, though, I know spring is finally here because I’m looking at my life through windows instead of imagining it from behind doors.


I am sure you’ve heard this saying: “when one door closes, another one opens.” It’s true, but I have spent a lot of time standing in the dark after the first door has closed, waiting for the next one to open. Either I’m longing for whatever is behind me, re-imagining it until it bears no resemblance to the reality, or I’m staring at the door ahead of me, looking for light through the cracks, writing a story in my head about what will happen in the room beyond before I even see it. In the meantime, I’m trying to take as little notice as possible of what’s around me in the space between.


If you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life, you can understand this approach. While you’re sitting in the bedroom where your adorable, thoughtful, truly classy stepmom is about to die of breast cancer, you don’t want to absorb into your memory her rattling, gasping breath, the medicine smell, the anemic sun straining through the clouds. You want to reinvent that scene later from a safer distance, from the other side of the door, where you can replace the smell of painkillers with the scent of lavender soap; where you can replace listening helplessly to the labored breathing with reading to her from a magazine; where you can replace the weak sun with a brilliant one.


Nostalgia and speculation are destructive habits if you can’t see beyond them.


And you want to imagine a sunnier room behind the next door, where you can sit and heal and remember how she made damn sure she was at both your rehearsal dinner AND your wedding in December, though nobody thought she would make it past February (she made it halfway through April on sheer will). You want to picture a room behind the next door where all of your most important people can come to visit, sit with you and put their arms around you and let you cry about how hard it was to lose such a special lady. It makes sense to picture that room, invent several scenes in it, hope for it, even if the room you get is another sickroom, this time at your mom’s house, where your stepdad will die less than a year and a half later of melanoma.


But even after these traumas and several others have passed, after you have absorbed all the losses and near-losses, it can be hard to give up the doors. Nostalgia and speculation are destructive habits if you can’t see beyond them; they let you skip over the crucial points that explain why something (or someone) has to stay in the past or allow you to dream a life for yourself that is far less beautiful and spectacular than the one God is dreaming for you.


Yet I will never be the kind of girl who lives in the moment; that’s not typically how artist brains work. I need to have a view into my past and some vision about the future to make meaningful connections, to write. For a long time I couldn’t do that –the past was too painful and the future too scary. I needed the doors in place for protection, so I could feel brave enough to keep feeling my way in the dark, knowing there were barriers between what happened yesterday, me today, and what would happen tomorrow.


Now I have begun replacing some –not all, but some– of the doors with windows. I can see into the room now at Children’s hospital where I stayed with my Caroline last August, she watching Olivia and I listening to music while she sat leaning against my chest in the little bed. I have kept the doors on all the other hospital rooms for now.


I can see through a window into Kyle’s memorial at his parents’ house in Milwaukee –the singing, the cooking, sleeping in a bed with my cousin Jessica like we would when we were little girls. But there’s still a door on my visit to the same house to visit Kyle the month before.


I can look through the windows in one room to see another, finally understanding that they belong together –they belong to the same life.


I can see into Linda’s room the day she died, see beyond the rattling breath, the medicine smell, the weak sun to the honor of being there when she finally felt brave enough to let go. I can see into Steve’s den, past the tiny man who bore so little resemblance to the one I knew, to the one I did know asking an uncharacteristically vulnerable question: “Where will I go?” I can hear my own answer through the window: “You don’t believe in Heaven, I know, but I believe in it for you.” There’s the medicine smell in that scene, but also a little bit of lingering pipe smoke –the memory makes more sense to me with both.


I can see through these windows some of what used to be, who used to be, and be grateful without being cracked open all over again with grief or heartbreak or fear. I can look through the windows in one room to see another, finally understanding that they belong together –they belong to the same life. At the same time I can see vaguely into the rooms ahead, imagine someone who’s missing from the room in front of me showing up in a room beyond it, imagine what might be, who I might be, and remember that God will write it way better than I can. In the meantime, there’s a lot more light where I’m standing now.


In another month or so, I’ll see outward signs of Spring…peonies and roses in my dad’s garden, that mossy, electric scent coming from the earth, and all kinds of whackadoos jogging in 60-degree weather practically naked. I’ll wear dresses and open-toed shoes and maybe more jewelry. I’ll leave this house with all of its painful memories and close the door. I don’t know if I’ll ever replace that particular door with a window, but I might. Knowing I might is my first sign of spring.



Moving red car


I’m not exactly a light packer (it’s the Gypsy blood, I’m sure). For example, when I go up to my Julie’s cabindo (cabin + condo –try to keep up) for a quick Mamacation weekend, I bring the usual pajamas, yoga pants, cozy sweaters to sleep in and/or wear out in public, but I also bring things like my microplane, a balloon whisk, really good olive oil, and sweet tea vodka.


I bring 20-30 magazines, several knitting projects, a few baking cookbooks, beauty products to play with, three to five candles, some excellent cheese, stuff for French toast, chocolate sauce, and heavy cream. (I ALWAYS bring heavy cream.) I bring Bailey’s and Haagen-Dazs for milkshakes, pomegranate seeds, hot rollers, and movies. I bring gardening books and my computer and my favorite slippers, a special bowl for jellybeans from the Chocolate Ox, sometimes even slippers or cozy sweaters for Julie to wear –her warmth and comfort are essential to my own.


I rarely remember my toothbrush.


So I have spent months deliberately choosing what I will and will not bring with me to our next house, wherever it is, whatever it is. Yes to the sofa we’ve had since we got married twelve years ago, on which I nursed all three of my babies, talked with my eternal friend Jenifer on the phone from about 1:00 until maybe 4:00 one morning a couple of years ago, and where I was sitting when the call came about Kyle. No to the wardrobe we bought when we first got to Cleveland, which looked a lot like a coffin and in which we housed a television that stuck out the back of it like a goiter. Done with that.


Yes to the patchwork blanket I knit over the course of several years, yes to the boxes and boxes of old letters and baffling preschool artwork (what is that? Why did she paint it brown? Are those CHOCOLATE CHIPS stuck to it? We don’t do that to chocolate –I’ll be speaking to her teacher). Yes to all of my plants, my baking pans, my embarrassingly vast candle collection. Yes to everything my friends have ever given me. Yes to love notes from Brian, which usually have fewer than 25 words (how does he DO that?).


The house is all cleaned out; we kept only what we value and everything has its place.


No to 90% of the mysterious, ancient computer and electrical cords that had been winding and twisting around the basement like vines from the Little Shop of Horrors. No to the never-used electrical appliances, the old bars of soap, the curtain panels from the old house that shrunk in the dryer. No to the horrible, HORRIBLE popping vacuum toy some sadist bought for my kids one year. And no to the old baby swing, Pack N’Play, and high chair (sigh).


The house is all cleaned out; we kept only what we value and everything has its place. The car, in stark contrast, looks like a mobile Hoarders endorsement (again, I blame the Gypsy blood). Last night, while we were getting in the car to drive aimlessly around the Twin Cities for an hour during a house showing, Henry tripped over a piece of car. That’s how he put it: “I tripped over that piece of car next to my seat.”


The “piece of car” is the section of front bumper that I lost to a curb in the lighting store parking lot several weeks ago (shut up –it was snowing; nobody would have seen it). I don’t know why I’m hanging on to it except it seems like it might be important to the people who will one day (not anytime soon) fix it.


There’s laundry back there too and some giant colorful pipecleaner thingies I bought Caroline for her birthday but haven’t let her play with since we put the house on the market because they leave little fuzzies everywhere (don’t make that face –I’ll give them back to her when we’ve got a signed purchase agreement). Juiceboxes, some gorgeous black leather boots of mine that need to be re-heeled, medical journals, bills, drycleaning that needs to be taken in, and the usual school rubble –broken pencils, fliers for softball or Tae Kwon Do, a shoe, a boot, a mitten.


Things I have to fix. Things I have to give back. Things I have to sort or pay for or find. Things I’m always carrying around with me in some form or another wherever I go. Things I didn’t pack. Things that aren’t for my comfort or anyone else’s. Things that rattle around as I travel, reminding me I’ll never be done deciding what to keep, what to leave behind, what to fix, what to try and find. Things that reveal my imperfection and vulnerability and uncertainty. Things that tell me that’s just fine as long as I’m moving.




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.