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.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


They say to whisper if you want someone to hear you, but I scream. It comes out impulsively. Loudly. I cover my mouth. I am working on breathing first, taking a moment. Using a husky voice. There is no reason to not sound sexy when you are trying to get your point across.

You know this is true.  Practice this yourself by screaming, "Don't Fuck with Me!" Then whispering it like Kathleen Turner. In the former, you sound like a shrieking harpy. In the other, you sound like Batman.

This also works with "Knock it off, clowns."

They say to whisper if you want someone to listen. It is like a philosophy. The whisper approach. Screaming becomes the drone of loud. Nothing sinks in. It is just anger, and distance. With whispers, the person leans in close to your face, trying to hear. Your kids even stop what they are doing and come close.

You state your intent in a hushed but stern voice. You don't perform a soliloquy. You just state it.

Clean. Up. Your. Toys.

I used to be a screamer, throwing blame and wine glasses and God, I want to whisper. I want to be cool, lean glass of water, back against the wall. An unlit cigarette dangling from my lip. I am a Jet. Or a Shark. Or a greaser of undisclosed affiliation.

I am the opposite of aloof. I am loof. I am an emotive wild thing, moschate and feral. I lash out and turn in. I become desperate when someone leaves me, screaming their name, screaming apologies, screaming meaningless promises. I scream and whisper and stop crying when I am really hurt.

I can't find my footing always. I admit it. I am a changeable thing. A hippie and gypsy and punk rocker and scabby and a conservative astronaut's wife with a high bouffant hairdo and a secret lover on the other side of town. Attracted to the dark more than the light. I shoot out the light with a .45 then rally against gun control. I am a hypocrite.

I am none of those things, or all of them. There is a truth in both of those statements. There is a pathology in striving to be the best.  I am even the best when I am the worst. It is the extreme of arrogance. In my mind. I am the worst of the worst. The best worst person you know. But I am not a bad person at all. I am just a person.

One of my favorite lines in any book is Franny and Zoey, where Franny says, "I'm sick of not having the courage to be absolutely nobody."

I can only forgive someone after I forgive myself.  I realized this the other day when something turned for me. I only recently realized that I had been obsessing about a situation I could not control. Obsessing was a kind of control, another kind of addiction. In my happiest moments, when the kids were giggling and running and playing and my entire family sat together, I was thinking about something else. About failure and injustice and sentences never spoken, paths never taken. There was a healthy dose of self-pity in there.

I finally surrendered. I prayed for sleep the other night, as I do every night. I prayed to turn this situation over, to give it to God, or the universe, or to the little Brownies who fix my shoes in the middle of the night. I asked them to fix it. I asked to find a way to be of use to my family without this in my head. I asked to stop obsessing. I asked to find a resolution And I had a vivid dream. In it, I forgave myself for not being what I could not be.

I am sorry you failed, Angie. I am sorry someone doesn't like you. I am sorry that you couldn't do better. I am sorry you are going to have to live with that for the rest of your life. I am sorry.

My standards are impossibly high. I could have never met them. And right after forgiving myself, I forgave the other person. I met her in this dream, and said I won't ever understand, but I am done screaming in my head. I am done screaming at you, though you are not here. I am done.

I can only let go when I an fully defeated, when I surrender. There are paradoxes which have become truths for me. Surrendering means to put down the gun and never try to get it back. Don't look at it. Don't reach for it. Don't imagine it in your hands. You are ready to sit on a roadside and take direction. You are done fighting. You are following, looking at the tops of your shoes, waiting for the next direction.

It was a whispered atonement. Only audible to you.


I haven't  known how to be in this body. I feel like I am being poured into it, still. Like the water of me remembers being in an athletic body. I look at my face, comfortable with the lines starting to form, the darkness under the eyes, but the second chin. I can't bear. This body is a strong thing. Angry. Carnal, and sweaty and hairy and begging for roughness, but I feel knit up in soft angora with padded shoulders, padded belly.

I have never worn pink. Well, once, I had a shirt that was dusty rose, but I looked naked and a man fell off a bike once thinking I had no shirt on. I hang our laundry on the line. The laundry is all black, except my husband's stuff, which is all grey. He says it is our family uniform. Grey t-shirt, broken in jeans. It is a whisper of an outfit, something someone wears so noone notices them.

It is unseasonably warm here, which is just as well with me. I love winter, but the humidity and wind chimes remind me of happier times, or the happiest times. I close my eyes and listen to the chimes, feel the breeze over me. I am warmed by that feeling of happiness.

I was so cold after she died, like the winter solstice took residence in my bones. I wore sweaters in August, bundled under blankets. I shivered. It was grief and thyroid, but mostly grief.

A few weeks ago, I was watching Oprah's channel, and this man, a famous movie director, was talking about happiness. He was incredibly wealthy. He bragged about his holdings, his material success, his servants, and estate caretakers. He bragged about his marble and large estate. It was never enough, and the headache of managing it all took up so much mental real estate, it hardly seemed like happiness. He sold his mansions and cars for a couple of modular homes, no bigger than my house. He gave his money away, I think. He did this after a biking accident. And he said something that I keep thinking about.

He said something like I have never been more happy than happy. When I was poor and happy, it was the same as being rich and happy. The happy was not greater or more fulfilling when I had money.

My happiness is different than my youthful happiness. My poverty-stricken happiness. It is different because I have the gratitude to stop in the moment and whisper a thank you, or appreciate the happiness. I thought my happiness was forever when I was 19. I was always going to be on this scale of happiness--somewhere between happy, but bored and happy. Then Lucy died, and happiness changed for me. Happiness seemed like one state that I didn't have directions to. Except now, I am happy.

I think this doesn't go the other way, though. Sadness has levels, degrees of suck. But happy is not more or less. It simply is.


My father is out of the hospital, his infection is better. Thank you for all the prayers and thoughts. He is back to being a loving curmudgeon and leaver of obscure phone messages.

"Hello, Angie. It is Tom. I don't have my, uh, thing."

Tell me what you think about forgiveness and happiness and everything in between.

Friday, March 16, 2012

about today

"What do I need to do?" my father asks, his brow crinkled and heavy with thought. His hair is cut short. It is the first thing I notice. I just saw him five days ago, and his hair was longer. He is scruffy now with a grey five o'clock shadow and his hair is short. He is confused, but silent, from the fever. It is nothing serious. He is in hospital, yes. With an infection common among the wheelchair bound. Just with his condition and inability to move when he gets a fever, they want to make sure he isn't having a stroke, or something even more sinister.

They called me last night at  9 pm to tell me they took him by ambulance to the emergency room.

"Do I need to go to the hospital tonight? Does he need me there?" I am sober. I haven't had a drink in 15 months. I can drive at 10 pm to a hospital ninety minutes away. The thought crosses my mind quickly. It is the little gift of sobriety that I notice today.

"No." The nurse says. "There is nothing to be done. He asked me to call you. He is fine. We know what it is, but we just want to make sure there is nothing else." The nurse asks me to call back in an hour. I drink mugwort and peppermint tea and watch a documentary on George Harrison.

They put my father on the phone. It is 11:30 at night, and he is sitting in an ER bay waiting to go to a room. I talk loudly. I scream, actually.

He says he feels fine. I hear the nurse say they are giving him a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. I scream that I will be there in the morning.


"What do I need to do?" The morning light is illuminates his eyes, which are growing duller in his older age. They shown like Beezus' eyes once. His jet black hair and crystal blue eyes. He remembers to ask again. It is the fifth time.
"Nothing, Dad. Just get better. Rest. Take it easy." I say it softly.
"I don't need to do anything?"
"Nothing. We are taking care of everything." My sister and I exchange glances. We are both concerned about how often he is asking this question. I touch his hand which is still burning up with fevers. "You are confused right now because of the fever. It is like being in a 103 degree room. It will get better, Dad. I love you. I took care of everything. I talked to the nurse and the doctor."
"They never tell me anything."
"I took care of it. They should tell you too, though. You are fine here. Just sleep if you can."
"Okay." He sits for a few minutes then asks again.

"Do I need to do anything, Ang?"

The children play in the hospital room. They are used to rooms like this, with a television mounted to the ceiling and anti-microbial sanitizer that comes out if you shake your butt near the motion detector. Heh heh heh.

He doesn't pay much attention to the kids today. He is silent, half-lidded, smiling when we catch his eye. He doesn't feel hungry, he says. He wants to know where channel 6 is, and where is his phone. And he keeps asking what he needs to do.

What do I need to do? 

The question keeps echoing in my head all afternoon. I know what he means. It feels like we should be doing something. When you are sick, it feels like you should do something to fix it. Something more than watching Price is Right, and cat napping all day. But then it seems more existential as the day wears on. More important. Is he asking because he knows something? Is he scared of dying? Am I scared of dying?

What do I need to do? 

I received her birth certificate today. Or rather her Certificate Of Birth Resulting In Stillbirth today. At first it bothered me that it was different. You know, when I applied for it in January. I wanted it to be the same as my other children. But it isn't the same. She died. What I want is for her to be alive. That will never be the same as my other children. It is just a piece of paper.

And yet it feels more than paper. It feels like she whispered to me, her little hummingbird spirit flitting around my ear, whispering, "You didn't dream me, Mama. I was here. I was real. You don't have to do anything anymore, but just rest."

What do I need to do?

You put it away, Mama, after you trace my name with your finger. After you smell it. After you say our names together. After you marvel at the issuance date being my due date, and your birthday. After you tell my grandparents. After you cry.

What do I need to do, baby?

Feel me, Mama. Allow that, finally. Allow yourself to feel me when you need, to smell me on the wind. Allow me to be the windchimes and the door slamming and the shadows right out of your line of vision. Allow me to be the lights that come on in the middle of the night, and the open cabinets. Allow me to be the ladybugs and hummingbirds and the songs that Beezus sings. Allow me to live in your home. Allow me to be magic. Allow me to be a prayer. Allow me to watch over your father while you rest a while.

She lived once. It says it right here. And yet it mostly says on this piece of paper that she died. That her birth was her death. But there were two events. And mostly, it says she was my baby. Someone whispered it.

I heard it loud and clear.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


I wear my hair in a knot on the top of my head, a wooden moth hair clip holding it in place, locusts earrings I bought to remember Jess, and an antler around my neck. My vest is moss woven with fiddleheads and forsythia. I have tightly cropped bark pants and pretend I can fly. I am the mother butterfly, Beezus tells me. I demand the children go collect nectar for our meals. Thor creates the cauldron with loose stones. I feed them nectar smoothies until they are giggling and flying away again. It is just pretend, but it feels real. I see my wings scorched and darkened from flying too close to the sun. The girls giggle and beg of me, "Oh, Mommy Butterfly, what should we do next?"

Perhaps I just have a normal case of spring fever, hormones coursing through my body reminding me of that carnality, that impulse of Spring. It turns me into a butterfly mama, or the 100 yard stare remembering a blanket and an orchard and a boy without any other goal than a blanket in an orchard.

There is a Picasso exhibit. I am with a large man, almost twice my size. He has no hair, except a mustache. He doesn't have much of a neck. It has become part of his shoulders. But there is something about him I find irresistible. We are kissing. His head is so large, it dwarfs me. It eclipses my head. His lips cover my lips. It is sloppy, and makes me squirm. I feel swallowed by him, but I am more powerful after the kiss and a little drunk. I wonder if I am dreaming of a Greek god.  The God of Log Throwing, or Yoke pulling.

We drive away. To a train station. There is snow and ice. He is laughing, a big belly laugh, and I kiss him. My truck spins off the road. The large man whispers, "Nothing will happen to you. Breathe." He has an accent of undisclosed origin. It is much sexier than his kiss, but then again, anything is. I try to be fine, but I am frightened of the truck being ruined, and my husband being disappointed in me. Disappointed by the large man I am kissing and the accident it caused.

I dream wildly without abandon. I am sexy there, bawdy, ballsy. But when I follow through, lay a man with no neck, he is boring, and breathes through his mouth. I am afraid at the freebie of a dream.

I have insomnia on the full moons. I always seem to write then. I call them by their proper name as though it will banish them from my sleep. The Snow Moon. The Storm Moon. The Worm Moon. I whisper it, count the stars. The full moon was six days ago now, but I am still awake too late. I tire easily in the afternoons and when I drift off, it is always like this, adventures and crashes and Picasso and kissing strange gods on icy streets.

And then butterfly kisses wake me, reminding me of my whole truck and long-necked husband.

What sorts of things are you dreaming of these days? Any spring fever in your, ahem, parts?

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I feel like this.

Her death was the sound of a tree falling in the forest. It made no sound, because no one heard it.

When I realized my daughter fell and I didn't hear her, I screamed.  I became uprooted, immediately tumbling to the ground. I was expended, losing its green the moment it lay still in the mossy bed of the forest floor. It made a very loud sound that everyone in my world heard.

It is a zen koan. The wisdom of her death and the living after. I am not wise. Don't get me wrong. But I am wiser than I was. She died. And I cannot change that. Should I deny growth to spite suffering, to accentuate the injustice of her death?

I admit, for the first year, I specifically resisted growth. There was nothing like growth. If you said something about growth, I spat at you. I bit your head, held on with my rotten teeth, growled. It was the absence of growth. It was a deforestation. I pulled up all my groundlings, the trees beginning to take root in the same place where she fell. I slashed and burnt acreage of me and acreage of friends. I embraced the ugly part of it all. Ugly felt bad, but it is what I knew.

I keep thinking of a friend who had dentures put in her mouth. Her teeth were slowly worn away and blackened by a combination of bad choices and bad genes. She finally got them all pulled, fixed, as they say. When the dentist put her new teeth in, she looked in the mirror and cried. She said that the teeth didn't look like her. They had no gaps, they were white and straight and perfect. Her teeth were yellow and crooked.

That wasn't her, she said. And the dentist asked her if she wanted him to put dentures in that look like rotten teeth. "That is not my job. My job is to put teeth in that look beautiful. You are not your bad teeth."

We grow attached to our scars.
I was attached to them. Attached to my knots, and carved initials in the trunk of me. Maybe I am still attached to them.

I keep writing about grief even when I come here to talk about a tree falling in a forest. I keep writing about what I learned after Lucia died even though I did not want to learn a damned thing. I hated advice. I rejected anything that sounded like I learned something, flipped off prayers and platitudes and comfort.

What I learned was specifically because I didn't want to grow. I wanted to be stuck with my rotten teeth, my felled tree, useful to no one. Perhaps I learned more about the extent in which I could be annihilated and still look normal, function, resemble human. My defects, my strengths, my humility, my arrogance took root in me, grew another withering, beastly creature, less tree and more fungus. I don't begrudge me. I did the best I could, but it was not enough. I took the path of selfish.

Here is what I learned: I learned what I value in my friends. I learned what I appreciate in my acquaintances. I learned how to accept from strangers.

I began to understand the necessity for boundaries. Who shares what and who gets to know about Lucia. I needed boundaries. I learned that I don't have to tell everybody everything I know, as my friend's grandmother says. I figured out whose judgment matters. I found out painfully which friends abandon me in my hardest hours, and which just didn't know what to do. There is a difference, and I appreciate that now. I learned that I am a spiritual person from the top of me to my bottom. It is how I want my life to be. Not religious, but in service to something bigger.

I suppose in some ways I feel wiser, more grateful, more mindful, more present in the moment. Because she died, her death reminded me that everything and everyone dies. I hadn't quite been living that truth. Because I could not change that she died, not through magical thinking, or dying myself. Not from giving up, or giving in. (I did both at different times.) You learn something from that. I have no control and in having no control, there is a freedom. But I chose this path of trying to figure out what I could learn from the worst moments of my life. Who I was then. Why I let my child's death erase all of what I believed so I could embrace intolerant, unkind, judgmental, and angry. I learned anger is my default emotion. I should be ashamed of it, but I am not. It is just who I am. I learned that. And then I work every day to change that reaction to everything.

I feel like Lucy's death made me better, because I have had to change every bit of me. I had to change, because being the me I was and grieving was fucking torture.  So I changed stuff about me, like who I trust and when I trust and what I trust and how much I trust. I change what I give and what I take and what I give personally and what I take personally. I changed what I complain about and what I don't.

Believe me, I resented that I had to change and grow and learn something. But she died, and I couldn't change that. But I could change me. I could change my reaction to grief. I suppose, you can say that Lucy's death has given me a kind of humility and wisdom I was sorely lacking without the years of losing every. little. thing. And yet, I would give all that up if she could live.

And that seems like no wisdom at all.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


I'm over at Glow in the Woods today answering questions and questioning answers.

I always find it interesting when writers talk about their pieces, and in this one, you may recognize a line or two. My daughter's insight about what happens after we die keeps bouncing around in my head. It felt like God was speaking through her in that answer. She asks me these questions, randomly, like "What is Lucy made of?" and "How old is Lucy?" To be clear, my answers to Beezus are usually succinct and not morbid. Something like, "Oh, she is made of grapefruit, like you and Thor." But in this piece, I just had these questions floating around and thought I would riff on them.