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

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.

 

Dignity

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.

 

 

Letting Go

Canoe Bay Lake Bridge Summer 2015

 

I have been cherishing an idea lately that I will be allowed to leave this house when I have finally learned what I was sent here to learn. I am still a little bit Catholic in that way –fatalistic. I buried my statue of Saint Joseph in the yard, upside down and facing the house, and prayed to him, the patron saint of happy homes, to please please pretty please help us sell it quickly and find a new house, a more peaceful one where we can be happy and whole.

 

I don’t know if Joseph handles the request himself or if he is just an administrator and God works the actual magic. Whoever it is doesn’t seem to be saying no; the answer feels more like “not yet.” We’ve had plenty of showings –several of them second showings– and one insulting offer, so we should be close, but the whole thing is dragging along in this very Old Testament way. It’s not excruciating so much as tedious, so I don’t feel punished; I feel tested.

 

I’m pretty sure the test is about Letting Go, which is my spiritual Achilles’ heel. I’m an emotional hoarder, storing old injuries and kindnesses in my memory the way some people hang on to old magazines and clothes nobody can wear. My memory is powerful …and sometimes mean. It’s mean to make me remember what has hurt me, but it’s just as mean sometimes to dredge up old indulgences and sympathies and spin them into ideas of lasting friendship or attachment.

 

I’m a big believer in shared history –the longer I know someone, the more I love them. I love them for who they are of course, but I also love them for the story I get to tell myself about our connection. The richer these stories are with understandings, misunderstandings, love, anger, resentment, and forgiveness, the more attached I become to the main characters. I assume this is yet another symptom of my Romanticism, though I am not just talking about lovers; Romantics (at least this Romantic) can put just as much stock in friendship and family connections, if not more.

 

My memory is powerful …and sometimes mean.

 

So I hang on. Tight. I call, I write, I beg to be loved as completely, as fiercely, as desperately as I love my people. I beg with my devotion and my passion, with songs and silence. I know when a friend or cousin or classmate is resisting this, when they want me to let go. It breaks my heart. I feel humiliated by my need and I hang on tighter. I resist rescue by the people who truly value me, I resist reason and acceptance and dignity. I don’t want the story to end. This weakness has made me a rather ineffective fiction writer. It also gets in the way of my writing my own life.

 

The sad fact that everyone except me seems to understand is that I can’t hang on to everyone. There are people from camp and school and even my family who just don’t want to keep the connection in any meaningful way. In some cases it’s not such a big loss –there are people in every life who read like living versions of Algebra textbooks –but a few who have gotten away from me are truly original, insightful, extraordinary people. I want to keep reading, but they don’t value me in the same way …even if some of them used to value me a long time ago.

 

Letting go feels so permanent to me –I worry about that. I am a bridge burner; could I find my way back to someone who called out from the opposite shore? Would I be willing to try?

 

There is a room at Hogwarts Castle (yes, I’m talking about Harry Potter again –just indulge me) called the Room of Requirement, where any student who knows about it may enter and find exactly what s/he needs at that moment –a place to hide, a place to meet, a place to stash something, etc. More than one person can be in there at a time but it can only be used for one purpose at a time.

 

There’s no letting go of that fire –it’s part of me, proof of my capacity for the magic that starts it in the first place.

 

In the final book in the series, one version of the Room of Requirement burned with unquenchable fire. Did all the other purposes for that room burn with it? Was any form of that room still there when the castle was rebuilt? Or is it still burning, never able or willing to let in someone who wants to return to it? When I let go of someone for good, my heart is that Room of Requirement, burned away for that purpose, that relationship. I wish I could ask Dumbledore about the possibility of rebuilding, reopening the room someday, so I wouldn’t be so afraid to let it burn now.

 

It would never be exactly the same, of course — there is no magic to undo a fire like that. The room would have to be different, conjured for a new use. That would be okay. I could live with that. But what if the room’s capacity for magic is diminished by a fire like that? What if it gets weaker? I worry about that for the Room of Requirement and for my own heart. I’m pretty sure I can guess what Dumbledore would say about it: he would say something about second chances. He would say the burning will stop, the room will be restored when you love someone enough to let them back in even when you know –horribly– their capacity to do damage.

 

That may be what Letting Go really means for me –allowing the fire to burn what it will, to hurt, to ruin, to steal my dignity by exposing my attachment to someone who doesn’t feel the same way about me. There’s no letting go of that fire –it’s part of me, proof of my capacity for the magic that starts it in the first place. Letting go does not mean letting go of my People, it does not mean letting go of my wish that those who walk away from me will someday value me enough to return. Letting go means letting go of my fear that I won’t let them. Of course I’ll let them; I love them no matter what. Isn’t that what we’re all sent here to learn?

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Tell the Truth

George Skluzacek Third Grade

 

“Tell the truth” does not mean the same thing coming from my Gypsy dad as it does coming from my WASP mother. My dad wants the Storyteller’s Truth –poetic and universal; my mom wants the Reporter’s Truth –accurate and fact-based. I have no idea how those two made it thirteen days together, let alone thirteen years, but let’s just accept that as one of life’s enduring mysteries and move on, shall we?

 

Everyone believes Gypsies are shameless liars, but really, we’re just storytellers. Storytellers –the good ones, anyway– are supposed to lie (the polite term is “fictionalize”) to get to the Truth, the Part that Matters. If I say I went to a back-to-school picnic with my family tonight, spread our blue blanket in the grass, and felt our tiny piece of earth break off and drift away from the other neighborhood families forever, then you know –I HOPE– that’s not accurate. But you still understand what I’m trying to tell you, right? You understand that I’m telling you the truth about how I feel here, that I know we don’t belong, that I can’t pretend anymore that we do.

 

If I had told you that we went to the picnic, got there at 6:27 pm, unpacked the ribs Brian made and the Corn and Tomato Gratin I made, tried (and failed) to get the kids to eat both, fed them baby carrots and Jell-O cups instead, let them play on the playground for a little while, and went home, then you would have an accurate report of our evening. But no truth.

 

My dad knows when I’m embellishing. He also knows the embellishments are there to tell him something important. He knows what to listen for. I love that about him.

 

Of course, Accurate Reporting has its merits. If you can’t remember where you parked the car at the Mall of America, you want to be with my mom, who will tell you the car is in the West Parking Ramp on Level Three (Hawaii, yellow), on the Nordstrom side at the edge looking over IKEA. You don’t want to be with me (though I always park outside of Nordstom), because I’ll tell you a story right then about how I feel about IKEA, how I always love it when I’m walking around in there but get everything home and feel ashamed about not being able to pull off that young, fun, Swedish-cool look in my own house. You don’t care –you just want to know where the damn car is.

 

I respect facts, I suppose, but for me, they’re usually beside the point. “Did you really say that?” my mother will ask me when I’m telling her a story about how I reduced some bitchy acquaintance to a sniveling mess. The answer is no, usually, but what does that matter? I imagined saying it, I wanted to say it, I felt like saying it.

 

No story I tell is about what I said, what she said back, what I said after that. The story is about how I felt, how I feel talking about it now, so if I write fresh dialog in the retelling, it’s only in the interest of stripping away the non-essentials to reach authenticity and principle. I don’t know if it’s a Gypsy thing or just a Skluzacek thing, but my dad has always understood that. He’s a smart, perceptive man –he knows when I’m embellishing. He also knows the embellishments are there to tell him something important. He knows what to listen for. I love that about him.

 

I know all kinds of people who report accurate facts all day every day but never tell the Truth. Facts matter, yes, when you’re talking about grocery lists and taxes, but when it comes to talking about my life, I’m a storyteller: if you want to Tell the Truth, you have to reveal your vulnerable self, your unpopular ideas and your embarrassing mistakes and your shameful desires. Tell me you mowed your college lover’s initials into your lawn last weekend without thinking about it, tell me you took one bite out of 27 different peaches to see which one was good enough for your tiny daughter. I’ll believe you.

 

Tell me you mowed the lawn last Saturday and it took you 43 minutes, tell me you purchased 9 peaches at the grocery store and gave one to your little girl. I’ll also believe you. But I won’t know you. Because you’re not telling me the truth.