Tuesday, March 27, 2012

note from God

I found the above note a few weeks ago when I was picking Beezus up from school. It was tucked under my tire, but not quite, so I pocketed it. It got shuffled into the mail, then ended up on my desk where it somehow floated to the top of the pile this morning.

Never walk away from failure. On the contrary, study it carefully & imaginateveley (sic) for it's(sic) hidden assets.

I have always been fascinated with found objects, particularly found notes. They seem to be written by God. In this case, a God who does not mind misspelling and grammatical errors. This is the kind of quote you see often. Failure is something to embrace, to covet, to hold as the beginning point of learning. Quotes falling in the same category: pain is the touchstone of growth, or that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Everyone fails something, it seems to imply. We fail so that we may succeed at something else.

I grimace. This is what the universe is telling me today? Harumph.

I could never walk away from failure. They followed me, chanting insults, throwing shit at the back of my head, like monkeys. But I failed a marriage once. I failed friends (so many friends). I failed promises I made to myself, countless promises. I failed my mother, sometimes my father. I failed myself. I failed at saving money when I was single. I failed at losing weight for five years. I failed at drinking like a normal person. I failed at happiness at times. I failed to bring a live second child into the world. I failed at failure in that I never looked at it imaginatevely, or imaginatively. These were the things that kept me up. My failures. Or the failures of others. My expectations so high, they eliminated every other person from my life.

I have a friend who said that for a long time, he thought God's plan for him was to be an example. He thought he would die of his disease, from suicide. He would be alone and penniless. A very sad story told to those suffering with addiction. Since he couldn't live without alcohol, perhaps God's purpose for him was to be the one who didn't make it. God wanted him to be the one who failed. That was going to be his success.  He said it comforted him in the darkest points of his life to think that maybe his suffering could alleviate someone else's suffering.

I can't shake that idea. I keep thinking about it. Particularly because his failure, what he talks about as his lowest moments, the descriptions of how much he lost to alcohol and how low it brought him, saves people's lives now. Exactly what he once thought, except he is the one telling his story now. He is the one telling people about his failures as you watch the light in his eyes inspire others.

I should say that today, I don't feel like I failed anything. Not really. I used to, before sobriety, but not now. I still feel like I failed some friends, my first marriage, but I also could only be who I was at the time. You don't know what you don't know. I tried to be better, but I wasn't. I never have to be that person again. It sounds hokey, but it is a total sea change.

Beezus is a fine little artist. She thinks creatively, tries different things. She draws ambitiously, like she cannot fail. She doesn't even stop at a piece of paper, when she wants more, she tapes on arms, extends her canvas without my suggestion. After she is done, she hangs her piece on the wall. Each one of them, regardless of errors. We have one on the door that is her and Thor, and it says, BEA next to her head and THOAMS THOMAS. There is not one that she thinks is a failure. If she catches me cleaning up and throwing her masterpieces out, she yelps, "BUT I LIKE THAT ONE!!!"

The last two weeks, though, something switched in her. When she is drawing, she has begun to grow sad, despondent, beat herself up. She cries and says things like "I can't draw."  Recently it was making earrings on a friend for a Get Well card. The little girl's injury was that her earring post when through her skull, you know, behind her ear. She had to go to the hospital, have it removed. So, Beezus drew her card with her friend wearing earrings. (Because who doesn't want to be reminded of the cause of their horrendous injury?!) And as she was drawing little heart earrings, she groaned, then started scribbling all over her picture.


And I comforted her, her lip quivering. I have been there, little mama. I told her it was savable before she scribbled all over it. That before she decides to ruin the entire piece, she should stop and take a look at it. Step away. Come back. And she explained how she failed, what she did wrong in her drawing, how it stunk. And conversely, how she stinks at art. I held her and rocked her, and she cried her way through a self-critique. Then I said, "Well, it seems like you know exactly what you did wrong in that picture, so you can start another card for her and fix your errors. We all need practice. I know I draw ten pictures to make one that I like."
"You do?" She looked at me.
"Yes, but I love drawing, so I don't mind making ones that aren't exactly what I had in my mind. I like figuring out how to create it the way I want, and that means a lot of time trying and practicing until I get it just as I like it."

I was starting to stress about how she turned a strangely drawn earring into evidence that she was a terrible artist. She cried. Wanted to give up. I was worried I did that to her, because I am such a harsh self-critic. So hard on myself, so demanding. I want to free her of that. But then I realized that she is growing, learning about art. She is editing. What I wanted to teach her is to judge her art without moral judgment.

Maybe that is what I want to teach myself. Maybe that is recently what I learned.

Judge without moral judgment. That is mindfulness. That is what this quote is saying.

All this is to say, when I get a note from God about failure, I felt like groaning, pissed off. I hated it because it seemed to imply that there is a silver lining.  The quote felt like platitudes and spins and twists. Devoid of compassion. Because certainly failure on a math test is different than losing everyone, everything, everywhere in your life from booze...so which failure does this apply to?

But then I realized that perhaps what this is saying is that failure is not a moral condition, it is a physical one. It is tangible, like the color black. And yet it is changeable. It is transitory. One that says nothing about your soul, but about your body. But only if you can look it imaginatevely.


  1. I've always thought that a failure stops being a failure once you drag it out into the light and call it by its name. It's the shame about one's self that is the failure.

    But...I've passed my own tendency toward self-criticism on to my C. Oh, how she beats herself up. And then I beat myself up for making her this way. And it goes on and on into a spiral of self-defeat.

    How do you strike that balance between just loving them the way they are and helping them avoid these traps?

  2. Oh my. My girl is like that - brim full of potential and promise and creativity ... and so hard on herself. I find it hard to know what to say, to encourage without platitudes, to offer help without crushing her spirit and individuality. I'm not sure I've ever said anything as wise as this. I may have to keep your words for just such occasions.

  3. I love the idea of failure not being a moral condition. I will try to work on seeing it that way. And I love Bea's art. Editing is tough work. I'm almost sorry it starts being tough so soon, but I'm glad she has you to walk her through it.

  4. This has brought me back several times.

    Angie, I love you. I love you for picking up notes from God tucked under your tire (but not quite).

    I love you for writing about them, and about your process of parenting.

    And I love you for lots of other things, too, but I will stop there this evening.

    Cathy in Missouri

    P.S. My closet is all black, too.


What do you think?