Monday, August 23, 2010

Magical thinking.

The baby sits in his Bumbo, mouth wide open, in his favorite expression. Readying for a giggle that never comes. It is just an eternal smile. I tiptoe into the doorway when I hear Beezus talking to Thor. I just want to know what happens when I am not in the room. What does she say?

I love you, Thor. You are the best baby brother in the whole wide world. That's why I am going to give you a kiss right on the forehead. Do you want to bounce? Yay. You are the most beautiful baby on the whole wide world. I want you to have this--my whole basket of shiny rocks.

I have no idea how I have a happy baby and a kind three year old. I was convinced I was warping him in utero with all my nail-biting and insomnia. And creating a bit of a fusspot toddler with my lumbering near hysteric pregnancy screeching--DON'T STAND ON THAT CHAIR, CHILD!  Sometimes I see Thor scratch his eczema and wonder, "Is that how my pregnancy anxiety is manifesting itself in him? Eczema?" I keep trying to figure out how I messed or am messing  up my children with my overly protective way of being and my anxiety. During my pregnancy, I wondered if there was a problem with him because I couldn't dream of him. I couldn't see him in my mind's eye. And so I touch his nose and chin and belly and he smiles at me. I burn some sage in his room. I hang the planets of our solar system above his crib, and put a doll under his mattress. My great-grandmother's rosary and a Virgin Mary prayer card on the bedside table. He is safe, I think. For now.

Watching from this distance, divorcing myself from my own frenzy of adoration, they look beautiful and normal and happy and in love with each other. And I don't take credit for that. I only blame myself for their problems, and see their happiness as a divine gift, or the result of magic. Where does the gene for magical thinking come from? How did I get that? Are all mothers like me--quick with the guilt, superstitious about reveling in the good? I was writing to my friend Danielle, talking about prayer and magical thinking. I had a prayer or two answered once. I went to the Vatican to pray. And I knelt, opened my arms, closed my eyes, and prayed. I prayed with all my religious being. I tossed aside my agnosticism, and tapped into that childhood place where I believed God rewarded prayers with new Strawberry Shortcake figurines. Except this time I didn't beg. I humbled myself. And I became wrapped in that sense of the holy, like when I meditated at a zen monastery, or talked with a weathered, kind priest about liberation theology, I touched that place of sincerity and humility.  And I knew, like you know it is raining without looking out the window, that my prayers would be answered. And they were.

It shook my whole belief in cynicism and bitterness. It jolted me out of that selfish, adolescent place that I had lived for so long. Danielle reminded me of these studies conducted a few years ago on prayer. "Do you know about the study in the New England Journal of Medicine some years ago? They took a group of equally ill patients and divided them into two groups. Half of them had strangers praying for their health and recovery, and the other half didn't.  None of the patients or their doctors knew who was being prayed for and who wasn't, but in the end the patients who had others praying on their behalf had a faster and fuller recovery than the other group."

In fact, after my experience, I read an article about just this study and magneted it to my fridge. Prayer works, I would remind myself daily, and so I would pray for others. Never for me. Never for an "A" on a paper or to date the cute cyclist I passed on the way to work, but for those suffering around me. I felt if I could be humble and sincere in my life, I could truly change the world.

One cold night, my husband and I drove to the hospital with a bag on the floor of the backseat, and a carseat strapped up without a child. I closed my eyes, rested my hands on either side of my belly and prayed: Hail Mary Full of Grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God pray for our sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Please let her be okay, God. Please. I won't ask for anything again. Please let her be alive. Amen.

Since Lucy died, I kind of instantly feel my shoulders tense when someone tells me they are praying for me, because "I am praying for you" seems to be shorthand for "This is between you and God, kid." And yet, I want to believe that it is also some people's way of saying, "I am thinking of you/holding you in my heart/wanting the best for you," I also feel so let down by my prayer for Lucia. I want to be worthy of accepting someone's idea of divinity, but I can only see her death as my fault. No prayer can help me. I am far away from the Divine, even though when I see my children alive and happy and playing, I touch that feeling of grace. I feel so delicate these days, so precariously perched on this place between belief and unbelief, bitterness and selflessness, the holy and the profane.

Time is supposed to soothe that, and just when I feel strong, I feel weak and powerless all over again. Sometimes I see this crossroads clearly. I face it like a riddle. One direction you will only hear the truth. The other only lies. How do you know which way is which? What one question do you ask the keeper of these paths? You ask one how the other would answer the question, "Which way should I go?" and then do the opposite. And that is where I am right now, I do the opposite of the opposite, turn upside down and right my way. This place of grief is a place of lies and truths. Of magic and prayer. Grief warps the truth and the lies, and it all gets jumbled together in one gigantic heap of confusion.


  1. Oh Angie, you just made me cry with this powerful post. I didn't understand prayer meaningfully until I lost Ezra, and in so many ways I both lost and gained faith as a result of his death. Wow. You always manage to put into words so much that I cannot.

  2. First, it's wonderful to hear about the way Beezus and Thor interact. I have much the same in my house, only with a bigger age gap, and I completely hear you on the melt your heart thing. And so far it's only gotten better with age. Which is something I wish for you too-- it is pretty much THE awesome.

    About the meat of this... I never pray for an outcome, and I have been known to ask people not to pray for me. In particular, I did that while hospitalized for PTL with the Cub. Because I didn't want people to feel bad about their prayers not working if things went to shit.

    Last year I had a hard time for months because my rabbi said in an email that a doctor said that the reason her daughter had improved from a very ugly disease so quickly and so dramatically must've been because all those prayers were working. I was upset the doctor said it and I was more upset the rabbi repeated it. I eventually had a conversation with her about it. She told me she said it because she wanted people who did pray to feel that they've done something. But she also acknowledged how I would be upset by her saying it.

    And you know what? I don't know whether this will make you feel better or worse, but that study notwithstanding, there is actually no proof that prayer works. Here's the abstract for a revised review of multiple studies, and here's a link for a full text of a fairly brief paper that discusses problems with studying prayer scientifically. I've seen a couple more critiques of the whole endeavor, but this is free full text, and I like the way it's written.

    And finally, if you have nothing better to do, here's a post I wrote (from my couch, in the days of bedrest at the tail end of my pregnancy with the Cub) about my reaction to an article claiming that the author's prayers were answered.

  3. Err... here's the actual link for that abstract. By mistake, above I actually linked to an abstract of the full article I also linked to in the comment. Sorry.

  4. Great post, Angie. I can't match Julia's comment for scientific rigor. I'm not sure why you wouldn't have perfectly lovely children. When my daughters were born 8 weeks early, I remember reading that genetics pretty much override everything in terms of development. This is why your kids are loving and caring(and mine bites people on the back).

    As for the power of faith and prayer--such a slippery slope, that. I remember praying for R to get better and then praying for a quick and painless death. Can't say that either of those work but then there's C.

    I've been perched on the fence for 3 years on this topic and haven't arrived at any useful answers. Other than achieving acceptance of whatever the universe cares to throw at me.

  5. I have always wondered what people mean when they say they are praying for me. As in are they literally, getting down on their knees of an evening, by their bed, and asking their God to look out for me? I have never really prayed, so I have always wondered how it works. Or are they just thinking of me at that moment, and that is their way of saying it?
    Bea and Thor are such a credit to you, Angie. I hope I can be half the mother you are. All still so new to me, but I feel like I have much to learn from you, which is why I love coming to this space.

  6. Your Bee sounds so sweet and I think you should take some credit for that.=) I think children act out of what they see, so you must be setting a loving example.
    For whatever it's worth I just want to say that I believe in the power of prayer. I don't say anything fancy or traditional, I talk to God like I would a person only with higher expectations. My faith has been bruised from time to time when things have not gone the way I hoped or prayed for them to. Especially watching my daughter die. I have seen proof in my own life and those around me that God answers prayers. Unfortunatley we can never know why he doesn't answer some, but it can't hurt to ask anyway.
    For Hope's mama's comment. Whenever someone comes to mind, that is a time I pray for them, I could be driving in the car and something makes me think of them so I just ask God for whatever that person has expressed a need for or knowing that an anniversary or birthday is coming up I ask God to give that BLM peace and grace to make it through those days. A lot of times righ when I read someones blog or FB status I say a quick prayer for them. I don't kneel and most times I don't even close my eyes. I just talk to God like he's in the room.

  7. Oh, Angie. I think you said with eloquence what many of us experience. This post is so beautiful and powerful, it aches my heart. Thank you so much for your words.

  8. When I was 7 years old, I started saying a novena every night for my father. I prayed that he wouldn't die because that's what the adults around told me to do. I was religious about it. I thought for sure that my prayers would be answered because I did it faithfully every night. We even had a special mass said for him at St. John Neuman's (sp?). I thought that was the answer too. But he died the next year. I learned firsthand that prayers don't work that way. I remember as I drove up 95 on my way to the hospital from work, making the same bargains with God as you did. I thought just let her be alive and I will never ask for anything again. I cried and prayed for that dreadful 45 minute drive. You would have thought that I would have known better. Those prayers went astray as well. I don't pray anymore, at least not in the same way. When I do find myself praying, it is for strnegth to get through the hell. I interpret people telling me that they are praying for me in the same way as you. They are just saying that they are thinking about us. I don't understand why they would otherwise waste their time. I think it miust make them feel better in an otherwise helpless situation. Sometimes, when I come across an overly religious person who is in need of something, I find myself saying the same thing. But I don't mean that I actually sit down at night and pray. Sorry for the ramble, but very interesting post. RElate to a lot here.

  9. I feel the same way when people tell me they're praying for me. I don't really know what they mean, and my knee-jerk (emphasis on the JERK) is a bit of revulsion. I don't want prayers. I want my baby back and I want this one inside me to stay alive.

    But I've changed my thinking, too. I know it's how people let me know they're hoping for us, sending good thoughts, and doing the only thing they can--appealing to someone/thing/where bigger than us, some magical being who can make everything OK.

    I also get twitchy when someone tells me to "pray for _______." I am not a pray-er. But I do believe in sending good energy, being as humanly kind as I can so that those good vibes reverberate elsewhere, where they're needed.

    And having been raised in a specific religious faith and having exactly zero of my prayers answered, I've left that faith. I don't think I was doing it right, but they always made me feel bad anyway.

    Your children sound absolutely lovely and, as hard as we are on ourselves as parents, I hope you realize it is an enormous credit to you. Cheers.

  10. See, the thing is, I never think of that study as having much to do with the gods, per se, although I know that's what it's meant to test out. I think of it as being about the inexplicable wonder that sometimes arises when people come together for a common cause. If I believe in anything at all, it's people, though I don't believe in many of them any more either. So when people say they're praying for me, I try to hear it as "I'm hoping for you." If I hear it as a request for intercession, it usually brings up more anger than comfort. But that's a story for another time.

    Beezus and Thor- that story is a perfect example of the amazingness that arises from people in community. You and Sam. Beezus and Thor. The love of family that permeates your home. Those are miracles I can get behind.

  11. But of course it's your "fault" that your kids turn out so loving, sweet and overall heart-melting? How else could they be, with such an awesome mama around? Take some credit, for it's well deserved.

    Loved Bee's speech... utterly sweet.


  12. Awwww, what a lovely big sis. She had to have learned that from somewhere, and I am guessing it is the magic of their family.

  13. Yes, yes and yes. I too rode in the car, praying, "Please, I'll never ask another thing.". I prayed as I lay on the table and as the world fell to shit and it all went black. I prayed when I woke up and for three weeks, but she still died, and it still shakes my entire belief in the things I was taught. I've kind of just made up a God in my own head with the attributes that I can almost feel and hope it's good enough. That if it isn't, I will be judged by my intentions only, and forgiven.
    Your babies are all a testament to you and your anxious, overbearing, beautiful and loving mother self.


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