I Have Never Once in My Whole Life Understood You

What if I’m spiritual, but I don’t believe in organized religion?

What if I want justice, but I don’t believe in organized rallies?

Should we open the zoos and let out all the animals?

Should we open the libraries and let out all the verse?

Maps are old-fashioned. They’re ancient. They point to places that aren’t even there any more.

Did your book clubs last? Mine started strong. I still read though. Every night I read.

Will our schools stop learning? Will we unspool education into threads?

In college they make you say — declare—what you will learn. Your major. The college says you have to —that you have to want to — learn one thing more than any other thing.

Study until they say you’ve studied it enough. Paper in a frame. Hang it.

I never not once in my life understood college. Not one time.

The transfer of knowledge from one person to another.  I dropped the baton. Then I found stuff on the ground I liked better. Ants and acorns. Shiny objects.

I thought things would make sense when I got older.

I eat healthy but I don’t believe in organized nutrition. Avocados can pray or not pray, as far as I’m concerned.

I can’t kneel at church. I don’t kneel. Don’t you know it’s taken me this long to stand tall, shoulders back, head up? Not everything is my fault.

I don’t believe in organized exercise. Pilates killed aerobics. Aerobics killed black coffee and cigarettes. If I want to run I’ll run to the basement and scream while the washer’s on so the neighbors can’t hear.

I drive but I don’t like organized transportation. Why should the government tell me where my sedan does and does not belong. Our old gray pickup growing up had three gears on the steering column. I stayed off the roads, so the government never found me. Underage driver. Coughing and sputtering and clouds of dust. Jerk shifts. I killed it.

I grew up far away from here. You never went there.

My friend Missy got her license and ten minutes later almost murdered us. Headed home from school at 90 mph. In some places 16 is still young enough to kill your friends.

I need a heart but I don’t believe in organized transplants.

Isn’t an audience just organized listeners?

If your alphabet isn’t organized you have a learning disability.

What if I like people but not all at once? What if I like people scattered, random, a little lost.

I have never once in my whole life understood you.

I want to make a church out of something you can’t see. What’s that sound? the kids will ask, looking up into their parents’ eyes. Eyes burning with love. With fire. What’s that sound?

We are closer now than we have ever been.

I have always wanted a god that had something to do with cardboard. Flea markets. A shaggy Shepherd wet from a storm, it shakes and the water drops fly. Who knows where they’ll scatter.

I miss people I don’t even know. I want to be with you. I want to zig and zag to get you a tissue in time when you sneeze. I want to be everything our Lord and Creator meant me to be. I want to share it with you. Everything I have.

But not every time.

 

Am I an Atheist Christian?

Do I believe in God? I have no idea. I think the problem is I don’t believe in believing.

I’m not trying to be difficult. I just don’t know what it means to say that I believe in something. What happens if I don’t? Does it *poof* go away?

Do I believe in good and evil? Of the two, I choose good. Does that make evil weaker? Is belief like voting? Is belief off in the wings, waiting for enough of us to choose wisely? After the votes are in, will the winning belief take the stage?

Is belief like wearing 3-D glasses? It’s the same stuff in the movie but with belief you get a heightened experience?

Do I believe in spring because it keeps coming? Do I believe in winter because you can’t stop it anyway? Do people in Arizona not believe in winter? Did they stop believing and their winter went away?

Does Arizona believe in my snowman?

Can I believe in sounds? Symphonies and speeches and heart-moving sermons? Do I have to believe in the air that carries the sounds? – because some days I can’t tell the air from nothing.

Kids believe in Santa Claus. Some of them get toys, some of them don’t. The child with the scooter believes. The child with the empty stocking, used to believe.

If I believe in soap, does it clean better? Am I absolved from bathing? If I believe in hot baths should I walk around carrying a bucket of hot water and a towel, because that’s who I am, that’s what I believe? Should I lug the towel and hot water around in case someone needs them? Does that make me a believer? Or a lugger? Can you be a believer and not a lugger?

Is it my great privilege to still be entertaining the idea of belief at all? Does that mean I haven’t had enough crap happen to make me give up this topic all together?

But there has been a lot of crap. About a wheelbarrow and a half. It might have been halfway into that second load I started to wonder…what is all this open and shut belief? Believe in God and nothing bad will happen to you?

And when the hard times come, if you have a lack of belief, then you know what your problem is. Ye of little faith, if only you’d believed. The crowd says tsk.

Is belief like a really, really long wish? A wish you wish your whole life? A good luck charm. Hold it tight in your palm and shut your eyes and imagine what you want, imagine it so so so so hard.

Do I believe in things because I love them? Do I believe in people because I love them? Because I need them? Do I believe in God in case no one else cares about me? Who wouldn’t pick God to be on their side? Who wouldn’t pick the biggest, strongest, smartest deity on the block. OF COURSE you’d say God was on your side, pulling for you night and day.

Do I believe any of what I’m saying? Do I believe in myself? Do I believe in the cancer that grew in my neck? I saw my lymph node. It looked like baloney. Did I believe in the doctors? I don’t know if I did, but I thought it important that they show up. I didn’t believe God was with me or watching me or teaching me a great big fat lesson. It just happened. I can tell myself it happened for any reason, I can tell any story, quote any book, tape any psalm on my bathroom mirror. The belief can’t make it real, not if I curated it. The story – the thing I tell myself so I can breathe, so I can hug my children good night and ever let go – that story is my story. I write it, and re-write it, every morning, so that I can get out of bed. Which means, it’s a story. I made it up. I made 3-D glasses and put them on. So I can stand to look.

Maybe I believe in stories. Maybe I’m believing in myself as the creator of my own stories and not thanking God for giving me the ability to make them. Or maybe I’m cutting out the middle man.

Is there still time to become a believer? Could things go smoother here on out? Could I save myself a lot of trouble? I see the believers at their party. My old neighbor, she checked in with God on the tiniest decisions, God told her the answer, and she never looked back. I say, lovely. How nice to think belief is driving the minivan, while I’m back here piling rocks behind mud-stuck tires.

I can’t conceive of a life where I don’t question: everything. I believe in the questions. If I believe in anything, it might be them.

Maybe it’s not clear. Except for a time in my twenties, I’ve gone to church all my life, quite often thought to be a place for people who believe in God. Yet the more I attend, the less and less I believe. I’ve been told by a religious person this is okay. (Thank you, Episcopalians.)

And if I understand less than ever, there’s a contented sense of wondering. Maybe it’s moving farther away from categories, the yes/no’s, the columns. Heading out into the Great Something, something you feel in your gut. You are in some kind of communication with it, no? So what is that?

I’ve made some sort of loving liturgical commitment to my gut.

When I had the cancer, I was 25. A few days after the diagnosis, I sat on the edge of the bed. The shock was there but I was tired of crying. I looked out the window and it was a sunny July morning. Like you couldn’t believe. I tried to pray but shook my head, fuck it, and then I had this weird experience, a feeling and an image in my head of the prayers and church and God as I’d known them as so much scaffolding, and that scaffolding just buckling and falling slowly and gracefully and beautifully to the ground. And THAT was a peace that surpassed understanding. Peace like a semi-truck. Like wasabi lighting up your head.

Years later, I can’t begin to describe how beautiful it was. I still remember it, though I’m older now, the upstairs bedroom with the creaky wood floors, a crack moving diagonally up the wall, and, that weird dusty peace streaming in the window. Peace that was utterly familiar. And completely unknown.

I think of that peace sometimes. It lets me come in and visit, again and again. And every time I can get there, it’s like the peace was waiting for me to come back. Like it knew I would. Like it believed in me.

Beliefs

I don’t believe in God the Father or God the Mother, but more the Mother than the Father.

I believe in God my piano teacher who made ham and Miracle Whip sandwiches and Scotch Broth for lunch and her husband who said they called it Scotch Broth because there were wee little Scotsman in the can.

I believe in God the newspaper, crisp and clean until the moment it’s unfolded.

I believe in God the tufts of grass poking up through the cracks in the cement – cement! – and still it grows. I believe in God like that, that you could pave the whole world and all our hearts and still the grass, the thin, thin green, would find a way through.

I believe in God my grandparents and an impromptu picnic at the Legion of Honor all in our sunglasses and a Coca-Cola for everyone; I believe in God the best friend and sleepovers at her house and her dad playing Creedence Clearwater in the morning and feeding his parakeets; I believe in God the yippie dog who won’t quit and God the cat who could give a crap; I believe in God who didn’t create Earth, or will us here, I believe in God who is here like water is here, like helium and maybe arsenic are here, because they’re just here and we’re here and why not – why not try if it makes me one inch kinder than I am now.

I don’t believe in God with a map and a plan and making bad things happen to you so you can learn something. I don’t believe in prayer. I don’t think the imaginary letters get read but I think it matters that we write them.

I believe that you often get more than you can handle.

I believe in the God of questions, the God of no answers, the God of you think too much and why not close your theology book and give that man a sandwich.

I believe in God the flat and colorless, the bland and cardboard box. I believe in God the kazoo and upside-down soup pot banged on with a wooden spoon.

I believe a lot of things sound better when you bang on them upside down with a wooden spoon.

My daughter is banging on this world with a wooden spoon.

Saying, “Here. My life is your life. Believe it.”

***

IMG_0373A version of this piece was produced as part of Just Like You, a theatrical performance of stories written by mothers of children with developmental disabilities though a partnership between Well Arts and the Northwest Down Syndrome Association. The show ran January 10-18, 2014 at the Firehouse Theatre in Portland, Oregon.

I am posting this 11 days before her IEP meeting at Westridge Elementary School in Oregon.

Is Gratitude a Sham?

Lately I’ve been having trouble with gratitude. Sometimes it feels like a sham. Like another thing people do to make themselves feel better, like go to church and eat organic food.
(I go to church and eat organic food.)

How could there be anything wrong with being thankful for all you have? Keeping a gratitude journal? Posting the list on Facebook and challenging others to do the same?Who gets skeptical about “feeling blessed”?

And I do feel blessed. I have so much to be grateful for. My life has included cancer surgery, radiation, divorce. It’s not like I’m sitting here with my golden ticket saying, sucks to be you, because at many points in my life it has sucked to be me. When I wake up and I’m healthy, trust me, I’m grateful. When my kids wake up and they’re healthy, I am grateful. Like you have no idea. Thank God.

But sometimes my “gratitude” feels a little too much like “whew”.

Today, at least, we were safe.

And then I feel guilty. Grateful but guilty.

My husband is a police officer. He once made a traffic stop when he was working the night shift. It was two or three in the morning, the couple – the parents – were on their way to drop off a drug delivery. Their toddler was in the back seat buckled into a car seat. Across the tray of the car seat the parents had scattered a bag of Skittles for him to eat. At three am. On the way. To the drug drop.

What is that dear child of God grateful for today?

Sometimes gratitude seems like another way to talk about luck.

Sometimes gratitude seems like heads when you called heads. Tails when you called tails. Heads my kids get Bob’s Red Mill Organic Steel Cut Oats. Tails your kid gets red-Skittled saliva dripping down his chin.

Not only that, but it’s healthy for us to be grateful. To boot! Like a supplement. If you have food, water and shelter you will live longer. And if you’re grateful for those things you will live even longer. It’s an upward spiral.

Something about this seems convenient.

I drew a long straw today. Who knows about tomorrow. I better keep being grateful. It’s worked so far. Lucky socks. Rabbits feet. Thank you God. I really like the stuff you brought today. See me being grateful. Do you see me, God? Wow, what a servant. Makes you want to keep it coming, huh?

While I’m ostensibly a Christian I’m not a very good one and if I’m honest I have to admit that I would thank ANYONE if it kept my husband and children safe and healthy. False gods? Of course I worship false gods, I worship New Seasons, I worship flax seed smoothies, I worship Oprah and her columnists, I worship Hanna Andersson long johns, I worship my emergency preparedness kit in the basement, for a time I appeared to worship Thomas the Tank Engine, believing that collecting the entire line of trains would keep my three-year old encircled in an oval track of safety/happiness/contentment. A rosary of steam engines.

There are children in India who live on mountains of trash. I do not want to live on a mountain of trash. I do not want my children to live on a mountain of trash. I promise you if the Flemings end up living on a mountain of trash that I will not find one single thing to be grateful for and if you tell me to write in a daily gratitude journal I’m going to tell you to fuck off. Fuck off you happy blessed person. Fuck off and get me off this fucking mountain of trash.

Tails.

My son’s word since he started first grade has been random. A random kid at school, a random Lego guy, for a snack he asks for a “random” blueberry muffin. Random: not part of a pattern. Unpredictable. Without cause.

Babies learn cause-effect. You drop the rattle. I pick it up.  You cry. I pick you up. As grownups, we still see the effects. Do we ever stop looking for causes? Do we ever stop looking for the big cosmic mama? Do we think we keep getting the good life because we are thankful for it? Are we scared, possibly terrified of what can and does happen in this world, and have to try something?

My greatest fear is that I will get cancer again and die and leave my babies alone in this world without a mother. My son loves me “so much it makes the moon look like the tip of a marker pen.” My daughter has Down syndrome. I believe in her more than anyone in the entire world. Who will be her army general without me? What would happen to her life?

I can’t breathe.

If expressing my gratitude keeps our winning streak going, I will do it. I’m missing the whole point I’m sure, but I’ll do it. On with gratitude. On with thanks! I would thank God, goddesses, Life, Creators, or a sequined skunk on meth if it could promise me I will get to finish raising my children.

My seven-year old said something to me the other day. He said, “One thing I notice, Mom, is that you say thank you to people a lot of times they don’t say you’re welcome back.” I knew what he meant. You’re welcome gets dropped.

Maybe that’s my problem. I’m dragging on the you’re welcomes. Maybe thank you is like a hot potato. Maybe by the time you say thanks you should have passed the thing on that you’re saying thank you for.

Wake up in a warm house, say thanks, get dressed and help someone else find a house. Wake up healthy, say thanks, and drive off to help someone who’s not healthy.

Say your “thank you” but by the -ou” part you should be out the door.

Maybe thank you is too hot to hold. Maybe that’s my trouble with gratitude: my blessings are burning my hands.

Maybe, oh maybe, that’s why sometimes it hurts.

That Poor, Poor Boy

I take the last seat in St. Helens B at the Airport Sheraton. The room is chilly from the air conditioning but warming up from the bodies packed inside. I like the workshop leader immediately, with her confident but everywoman quality, half girlfriend/half talk show host.

Because this is a writing conference, her talk is on characters. Why people, real or fictional, do what they do.

She gives us an example of a fictional hero, a young baseball player named Joe, pitching in The Big Game. All through the movie he has wanted to win this game for his father, so that he will finally have this thorny man’s respect. At the movie’s climax, Joe’s on the mound. It’s a tight game. The father watches Joe from the bleachers like a hawk. And here comes the next batter from the opposing team, a boy who has watched all season from the bench, and now his coach is putting him in.

At this point, the writers in the room are nodding. They know this scenario. They know this character. Now the workshop leader wants to jack it up a notch. She says not only that, the batter has a disability.

There’s more nodding. Bigger nodding. Because a boy who sucks at sports is one thing. A boy who has a disability, by conventional wisdom, is. even. sad. der.

(Casey Martin is a professional golfer with a birth defect in his leg. Peter Gray played in the Majors with one arm. Karen Gaffney, who has Down syndrome, swam across Lake Tahoe.)

Joe takes pity on the batter, tosses him a grapefruit, the batter hits it. Joe’s team loses the game and his father’s respect. But Joe is a winner, a hero, because he wins his own self-respect.

Now the workshop leader wants this audience of writers to help her invent a main character. She gets us started with a woman who wants to buy a bed and breakfast.

She says: Why would she want to?
Someone calls out: She’s always wanted to.
Workshop leader says: Raise the stakes.
Someone calls out: Her mother had a B&B and always told her daughter she’d sold out by not taking on the family business.
Workshop leader says: Raise the stakes even more.
Someone calls out: She needs the money to care for a disabled relative.

The game stops. Nothing seems to trump a person with a disability.

Except maybe a child with a disability. Because then the workshop leader drops the punchline. “Perhaps it’s that poor boy still trying to play baseball.”

Laughter.

I’m not saying that a boy with a disability can come off the bench and drive an eighty mile an hour fastball down the third baseline. (Some people without disabilities may also have some trouble.) I’m just wondering how it feels to live your life with people on your team, in your classroom, your community, seeing you first and foremost as an object of pity.

Or people in your church.

The Gospel reading this morning is (another) story about Jesus helping a person with a disability. This time, in Luke, it’s a woman whose body doesn’t stand up straight. It’s pretty common in church to hear about Jesus fixing people whose eyes don’t work, whose legs don’t work, etc. He heals the people. Restores them. Makes them whole. Sometimes I imagine seven-eighths of a pie moping around on two legs, until Jesus comes up and miraculously pops in the missing slice.

I am no one to be criticizing Jesus. Or the Gospel or the church and its traditions which I’ve been trying to follow faithfully for almost forty years. But just from where I sit in the pew, four rows back, I see at least two people with disabilities. How does it feel to sit there hearing someone with a disability be the sad person in the story? Over and over. The one who needs fixing. The one Jesus singles out, so obviously needing help.

Moments before this story was read aloud to the congregation, I’d slipped out of the service to check on my four year old, out in the playground with the rest of the Sunday school kids. I’d peeked out the window and spied her swinging from the rings, kicking out her legs to make herself swing farther. Just like I’d taught her. I was a proud mama.

But slipping back into the service, listening to the reading, it occurs to me that in the Gospel my daughter has not mastered the rings. She’s not swinging. She’s not strong. She’s not even happy. In the Gospel, because she has a disability, my four year old and her penchant for Darth Vader and Carla Bruni, are transformed. In the Gospel, my daughter is an outcast. She can no longer swim three quarters of the width of the pool. She can no longer ride her trike down the sidewalk. She has forgotten the one-half she knows of the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t want to go to church and have the Bible tell me to pity her. But it does seem, that just as in the writing workshop, the people with disabilities are some of the Bible’s saddest characters.

The workshop leader is fat. I didn’t want to say that before. But I do have to wonder if she has ever sat in the movie theatre, getting swept away by a great story, when halfway through the show the stereotypical fat character comes out, loud and jolly, or loud and bawdy, the very limited range in the movies for characters who are obese. I wonder if she has ever seen a character like that and felt a little pit in her stomach. I wonder if she stopped laughing, while everyone around her continued. I wonder if she heard the audience laughing freely and wished she could be part of that freeness that everyone else felt.

I wonder if I was there too. And if I sat in the row behind her. Laughing.

Can a Mother Worry Too Much?

A new study from Northwestern came out that says: mothers with new babies worry a lot, perhaps to the point of being obsessive-compulsive. One of the things they worry too much about are germs. The study reports that the amount of worrying “surprised” the researchers.

When I read this, it didn’t exactly make me text all my friends: “You’ve got to read this!” The joke about driving your newborn home from the hospital with your hazards flashing – it’s not so far off. For six years I have been scanning the horizon for dangers that could hurt my little loves. At the same time, this process of caring for them has made me realize, I was already a worrywart before I had children. (Although if you’re single and have a good job, it’s usually called neurotic, which is kind of stylish.) I have considered a public service campaign asking anxious people to reconsider putting their heart in an eggshell and rolling it down a hill. If you thought you were anxious before

Still, having stumbled down this parenthood path for a few years now, I have realized that not all mothers worry like I do.

Last summer on a beautiful afternoon, my children and I were at a neighbor’s house. The kids played while my friend and I chatted in the kitchen. She was finishing up a chicken dish for dinner. The raw chicken breasts had lain on her cutting board. She’d sliced them with her knives. She’d held them in her hands.

First I’ll tell you how the germ warrior would have cleaned up. When I prep a raw bird I’m like those science specials on PBS where you can track the progress of the germs with infrared light. In my mind, I can see all the places I have touched with my raw chicken hands. The faucet handle, the salt shaker (even though I held it upside down with my wrists so I wouldn’t get raw chicken juice on it). I have noted the chicken juice that dripped out in the fridge when I took out the chicken. I note the path from the fridge to the counter, in case there were more drips.

At clean up time, I wash my hands with the hottest water I can stand. First I use soap out of habit. Then Bon Ami cleanser (not dangerous to humans or animals) under my fingernails. Then soap to get off the cleanser. I spray the counter with Seventh Generation disinfectant, made out of thyme, because as much as I worry about the raw chicken issue, I am still worried about the bleach issue, which I keep meaning to research. For now I stick to Bon Ami and clean the counter twice. I dry with a cloth rag, which I carry to the basement and drop directly in the washing machine so it doesn’t contaminate anything else in the laundry pile, (in case we have an emergency measure where due to a lack of clean clothes we have to fish the least stinky socks out of the pile and wear them to school, which if they had raw chicken juice on them could make a classmate ill. I kid you NOT in point three of a second my brain comes up with this.)

A quick disinfecting of the faucet handle and the salt shaker, and the shelf in the fridge where the chicken defrosted. And boiling water to pour in the sink, to sort of wrap things up.

I am aware that if I add one more step to this process I’m in danger of being labeled with something.

Now, here is what my neighbor did when she was done with the raw chicken: she put it in the oven. She washed her hands. She sprayed a Clorox product across the counter, wiped with a paper towel, and threw it away. Her son trotted in for help getting the wrapper off his Tootsie Pop and she touched it.

I found this all fascinating.

I knew we were different. I got my kids flu shots, she skipped them. I locked the doors when we went next door to visit, she drove to the grocery store and left her first-floor windows open. We once compared notes on how we had handled a certain rough-looking man who was going door-to-door down our street – selling something or collecting signatures, I forget. At my house, I’d mouthed no through the window and waved him off. He next went to her house, where she saw him through the window and quickly prayed, asking God if it was safe to answer the door. She believed that God said it was. I forget what happened, but she lived to tell about it. I would guess my neighbor was not one of the eleven percent in a study of new mothers who worry about germs.

The God she believed in was daily, hourly, helping her make decisions. I think it’s fair to say that she felt that her children’s health and protection were in God’s hands. And that her job was to keep up the connection with God, so that he would help her make the right decisions. And perhaps most importantly, that God was stronger than germs.

A lifelong Episcopalian, I have never found this comfort–my own failing, not my denomination’s. There have been nights when I tried asking God to protect my children from the latest virus. It could be lack of practice, but it doesn’t sit right. I feel like a phony. Or like someone waving a lucky rabbit’s foot over my baby’s cradle.

Or maybe I’m just more of a DIY-er. God put me down here, on the ground, to live this life, to raise these babies. Is it fair to expect hints the whole way through? Didn’t God bless me with cleanser and sponges, with doctors and scientists and access to information, a brain to digest it, and with arms and legs to get the work done? The work of protecting my children from an early and untimely death. Am I really going to trust this important work to a prayer – a whispered “please” wafting through the air?

On the other hand, wouldn’t my children benefit from a mother who had more faith in God, and thus, in life? A parent’s worry can be a burden. Already my son knows when we come home from somewhere that we walk inside and wash our hands. But yesterday coming home, he said he was going to wash his hands twice. Washing your hands once is good enough, I told him, trying to nip obsession in the bud. He’s only six. What about when he’s seven? If I had to choose, I’d rather they had faith like my neighbor’s. Wouldn’t I?

At church each Sunday, about halfway through the service, the liturgy calls for us to exchange peace with one another, turning to those around us in the pews and shaking hands and saying, Peace be with you. I say it to my children. I teach them to shake hands and say the same. I do want God’s peace to be with them and in them and in the people around them. I want them to stick out their chubby little hands and feel that connection. Even if they don’t realize it, I hope they feel closer to God, a little stronger. Safe. I hope it every single week.

And when we sit back down, I sanitize their hands.