Thirty years ago, I was living in Bolinas, California, an exquisite enclave of hippies, artists, and organic farmers on the coast. I had a wonderful poet boyfriend named Ty. We were crazy about each other, even though we were not exclusive—which is to say that I loved him more than he loved me. But he was gentle and funny, and had great stories about his years in India, Tibet, Taos, and Salt Lake City. It had never occurred to me before Ty that you might wake up spiritually as easily in Utah as in Sri Lanka. He was the first to give me books from which I learned that God was an equal opportunity employer—that it was possible to experience the divine anywhere you were, anywhere you could see the sun and moon rise or set, or burn through the fog.
I was crushed for a while after Ty dumped me, but it really is easier to experience spiritual connection when your life is in the process of coming apart. When things break up and fences fall over, desperation and powerlessness slink in, which turns out to be good: humility and sweetness often arrive in your garden not long after. And I had a pharmacist friend in San Francisco who gave me Valium.
He got me a cup of tea with honey, toast with honey, yogurt with honey, like I was John the Baptist with the flu. He said he had to take a shower and then head over to Romy’s. I said it was totally okay, but I was just too sick to get up. He felt my forehead with the back of his hand, like a father. I was hot from crying and grief and mental illness. He went to shower.
I read all afternoon in bed, peaceful as a cat. There was only me, the book, the space I was reading in; hands, and the whisper of pages, eyes, and a place to sprawl. The wrinkly flower of my heart was opening in slow motion.
I started praying, not the usual old prayer of “God, I am such a loser,” but new ones—“Hi” and “Thank you.” I viscerally got that God was everywhere; poor old God, just waiting for you to notice, and enter your life like a track coach for slow people. Kathleen Norris said, many years later, “Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine,” and I got the message that day. People were going to come into my life. Many of them would leave. Most of the people in my family would roll their eyes and hope that soon I’d go back to the manic and tranquilizing mall of American life.
I stood up. I felt like my old self, which is to say creaky but okay.
This is something I do all the time, shove bits of paper with prayers and names on them into desk drawers, little boxes, my glove compartment. I’ve found that when you give up on using your mind to solve a problem—which your mind is holding on to like a dog with a chew toy—writing it down helps turn off the terrible alertness. When you’re not siphoned into the black hole of worried control and playing fretful Savior, turning the problem over to God or the elves in the glove compartment harnesses something in the universe that is bigger than you, and that just might work.
The kids love stories that involve dead people. It’s one of the spiritual dimensions that they desperately need to have addressed, the incomprehensible fact that someone is there, and then is not. How can this possibly be, and how can you go on without the dead person? I don’t have an answer. There are deaths I’ve not gotten over yet; but somehow, over time, the acute helplessness of death has become merely painful.
“So why would you want to let go?” I asked. One of the six-year-olds answered, “Because you’re thirsty?” “Bingo!” I cried. Thank you, Jesus! This was suddenly the most successful class I’d ever taught. “See, sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to a point where you’re sick of a problem, or worn down by tinkering with it, or clutching it. And letting it go, maybe writing it down and sending it away, buys you some time and space, so maybe freedom and humor sneak in—which is probably what you were praying for all along.”
And yet, having confessed this, I know that humans want and need exactly the same thing: to belong, to feel safe and respected. I also know that we don’t live long. And that dancing almost always turns out to be a good idea.
I will never know how hard it is to be developmentally disabled, but I do know the sorrow of being ordinary, and that much of our life is spent doing the crazy mental arithmetic of how, at any given moment, we might improve, or at least disguise or present our defects and screw-ups in either more charming or more intimidating ways.
That’s me, trying to make any progress at all with family, in work, relationships, self-image: scootch, scootch, stall; scootch, stall, catastrophic reversal; bog, bog, scootch. I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kinds of things; also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in silence, in the dark.
I suppose that if you were snatched out of the mess, you’d miss the lesson; the lesson is the slog. I grew up thinking the lessons should be more like the von Trapp children: more marionettes, more dirndls and harmonies. But no: it’s slog, bog, scootch.
I was so lost. I couldn’t follow the bread crumbs back to the path of mental health, because I’d eaten them all. So I ended up eating junk, off and on, until bedtime. I can hardly describe how I felt when it was over: like a manatee alone in an aquarium. It is hard to remember that you are a cherished spiritual being when you’re burping up apple fritters and Cheetos.
Telling helped a little. It felt as if maybe the worst was over. “But why didn’t my faith protect me?” I asked one friend. “It did,” my friend pointed out. “You found your way out of danger—and disgust—through humility, and even confession—to the love of safe people. Now you are safe again.”
The spirit lifted me and now it holds on lightly, like my father’s hands around my ankles when I used to ride on his shoulders.
After surviving breast cancer twice, Gertrud was the one who got dealt the cards to be the survivor, the one who got to see how things came out. One pays an exorbitant price for that honor. A few years ago, my mother died, devastatingly. Five years before that, Gertrud’s husband had died of cancer, and twenty years before that, my father. They were the people with whom she had planned to grow old.
I woke up from a nap years ago to find my son gazing at me. He took my face into his hands, and peering at me like an old Jewish relative said, “I love that little face.”
Most of us don’t notice how great we look until years, even decades later.
Someone who spent $30,000 at a diet hospital told me the secret of how she lost weight there: Eat less, exercise more. Oh, and here’s $5,000 worth of cutting-edge advice: Drink more water.
Here is my theory: I am all the ages I’ve ever been. You realize this at some point about your child—even when your kid is sixteen, you can see all the ages in him, the baby wrapped up like a burrito, the one-year-old about to walk, the four-year-old napping, the ten-year-old on a trampoline.
“You’re my mom,” he said. “I’m supposed to come to you with my problems.” The first year after my mother’s death, I felt a lot of sadness that I had never had a mother to whom I could take my problems. She was my problem, or at any rate, this is what I had always thought, and continued to think for a long time. Mothers were supposed to listen and afterward, to respond with wisdom or perspective. But perhaps my mother didn’t read her owner’s manual.
When we have children, we know they will need us, and maybe love us, but we don’t have a clue how hard it is going to be. We also can’t understand when we’re pregnant, or when our relatives are expecting, how profound and dicey it is to have a shared history with a child, shared blood, shared genes, even humor. It means we were actually here, on earth, for a time, like the Egyptians with their pyramids, but with kids, it’s an experiment: you wait and see what will come of it, and with people, that almost always means a mess.
What did I think death was like, he asked. I didn’t have a clue, but I’d heard an Eastern mystic say that it was like slipping out of a pair of shoes that had never fit very well. We moved on to what we were reading, and how our kids were. I knew for a fact that Mel believed in assisted suicide. We had discussed a story about it in the paper once: A local man gave his wife an overdose, then sealed her upper body in a plastic trash bag with duct tape. He gave himself an overdose of pills, and they died holding hands. What love! Mel was somewhat surprised that as a Christian I so staunchly agreed with him about assisted suicide: I believe that life is a kind of Earth School, so even though assisted suicide means you’re getting out early, before the term ends, you’re going to be leaving anyway, so who says it isn’t okay to take an incomplete in the course?
But as a Christian and a feminist, the most important message I can carry and fight for is the sacredness of each human life, and reproductive rights for all women are a crucial part of that. It is a moral necessity that we not be forced to bring children into the world for whom we cannot be responsible and adoring and present. We must not inflict life on children who will be resented; we must not inflict unwanted children on society.
If my heart were a garden, it would be in bloom with roses and wrinkly Indian poppies and wild flowers. There would be two unmarked tracts of scorched earth, and scattered headstones covered with weeds and ivy and moss, a functioning compost pile, great tangles of blackberry bushes, and some piles of trash I’ve meant to haul away for years.
Just after I got sober, I met a wonderful couple, funny, charming intellectuals. They were spiritual in the same way I was and am, which is to say devout, with a sometimes bad attitude, a black sense of humor, and tendencies toward gossip and character assassination. We hit it off instantly. They lived in the South, but they both occasionally taught at writers’ conferences in California, and I saw them whenever they were in town. Our sons were born a month apart, and two years later, we lost longtime best friends to cancer. We saw each other through. I was always a little jealous: they had met and married during their senior year in college, where they slipped away for long weekends in bed, drinking scotch and reading Anna Karenina out loud. This was almost more than I could bear—to have read Tolstoy out loud to each other. In bed! Hemingway I could have handled, or beer. But Tolstoy? And scotch?
One summer, when our sons were nearly four, the couple invited Sam and me to stay with them at a rental house on the Gulf Coast. They sent us tickets: I did not have any money. The man had gotten a big advance for his second novel, and a vacation at the shore was a dream come true. We had one of those rare vacations that are as casual as a kitchen: long days in the sand with our sons, swimming, watching sunsets, making meals.
When I was young, I used to be so jealous of other girls that it crippled me. I was a good girl, but underneath that plank of sweetness, the worms lived in the moist earth. I didn’t know other people were just like me, beautiful and awful, kind and insane.
I will always be family to the people of this town. It got cold not long after I finished. The clouds that had threatened rain were breaking up, but kept hanging there in front of the sun, like memories. On top of everything, I felt grief and a deep, scary discomfort. In a fairy tale, you often have to leave the place where you have grown comfortable and travel to a fearful place full of pain, and search for what was stolen or confront the occupying villain; it takes time for the resulting changes to integrate themselves into the small, funky moments that make up our lives.
In Salinas, word went out. This is how many tribal stories begin: word goes out to the people of a community that there is a great danger or that a wrong is being committed. This is how I first found out that the governor planned to close the public libraries in Salinas, making it the largest city in the United States to lose its libraries because of budget cuts.
Salinas is one of the poorest communities in the state of California, in one of the richest counties in the country. The city and the surrounding area serve as the setting for so many of Steinbeck’s great novels. Think farmworkers, fields of artichokes and garlic, faded stucco houses stained with dirt, tracts of ticky-tacky housing, James Dean’s face in East of Eden, strawberry fields, and old gas stations.
A free public library is a revolutionary notion, and when people don’t have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries. You cut people off from essential sources of information—mythical, practical, linguistic, political—and you break them. You render them helpless in the face of political oppression. We were not going to let this happen.
In the car, Mozart was on the radio, a clarinet concerto so piercingly beautiful that something inside me woke up with a myclonic jerk, like someone revived with smelling salts or waking abruptly after dozing off at the movies. I closed my eyes to listen.
If you want to feel loving, I coached myself, do something loving. This is basic soul care. I don’t even know what that means—soul. Traditionally it is believed to be the component of ourselves that survives physical death; a reflection of the Holy, made up of light and breath and silence and love, of everything ancient and of babies about to be born. C. S. Lewis said, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” If this is right, we have a purpose, which is to shine, like the moon shining in the sky; or to paraphrase the old bumper sticker: Think globally, shine locally.
When I asked Father Tom where we find God in this present darkness, he said that God is in creation, and to get outdoors as much as you can. So a few minutes after I turned away from home, my big dog and I were in the parking lot beneath the foothills of Mount Tam. Lily bounded ahead on the path. The air smelled grassy and warm and clean, like oats that had just come out of the dryer. There was a mild breeze that did not have an objective, the way the biting winds of winter do. It was breathing the cool air, too, draping you lightly in itself.
I loved him intimately, sight unseen. Yet when he lay on my chest for the first time, part of me felt as if someone had given me a Martian baby to raise, or a Martian puppy. And I had no owner’s manual, no energy, no clue as to what I was supposed to do. The other part of me felt as though I were holding my own soul.
I believed that being a parent would be a more glorious circuit than it’s turned out to be—that the transmission would be more reliable. Now I think I imagined it would be more like being a grandparent. It’s been a lot of starts, stops, lurching, and coasting, and then braking, barely in control, gears grinding, and then easing forward.
It turns out that all kids have this one tiny inbred glitch: they have their own sin, their own stains, their own will. Putting aside for a moment the divine truth of their natures, all of them are wrecked, just like the rest of us.
Everything in the room stirred: dust and light, dander and fluff, the air—my life still in daily circulation with this guy I have been resting with for so many years.
John, the young man who got busted at school, opened his eyes and said sleepily, “Hi, Annie.” He is often at our house, part of the smelly Jurassic herd who hang out in Sam’s room. He’s a good person—observant, dignified, funny, and tenderhearted, just like Sam at other people’s houses.
“He’s been working for so long to get into a really good school,” said his dad. “And then? It’s gone, in the blink of an eye.” Neither of us spoke for a moment. This is obscene, that higher education is so desperately cutthroat that a single adolescent slip can make such a difference in the quality of the rest of a young person’s life. He continued haltingly: “It’s just the way it is. We talked about it last week when his report card arrived—that what we had all hoped for was probably not going to happen now. It was a sad conversation for both of us. And later that night, when I was in bed, he came into my room and told me, quietly, in the dark, ‘Don’t give up on me, Dad.’”
One of the four things I know for sure about raising kids is to savor whatever works. I smiled as his friends woke and surveyed the mess in his room; then I left.
Another of the four things I know for sure about raising kids is that most times when you overlook bad behavior, or let them blow you off when something is important to you, you injure them. You hobble their character.
The third of the four things I know is that if you can shine a small beam of truth on a beloved when you are angry, it is more beneficial than hitting that beloved with a klieg light of feelings and pinning the person to the wall.
I can’t remember the fourth, but I put numbers 2 and 3 into practice.
He’s been coming here with me off and on his whole life, because I so believe in this ministry and want him to share it with me: the people here are shipwrecks, and sometimes there is not much left, but there is a thread in them that can be pulled and that still vibrates. It’s like being with nuns who have taken vows of silence and mutter. So we show up, talk, and sing. It seems to fill the residents, breathe more life into them. Sam’s companion beamed and concentrated on doing her part correctly, as if to please him. When we sang “Jesus Loves Me,” a song she and the others may have learned as children, some sang along, muttering and murmuring like brooks: there’s such pleasure in knowing the words to a song.
In 1967, my father published a great novel about an antiwar march, called The Bastille Day Parade, in which protesters carry signs that read “Turn Off the Lie Machine.” In choosing July 14, I would like to pay tribute to him and to the people of his generation, who are surely turning in their graves with horror about contemporary life in their beloved America.
After a while, I turned to see how the man and the girl were doing, but they were gone. The hills were silent again except for one birdsong, and it cheered me slightly. See? If there were no other proof of the existence of a bigger reality than birds, they would do it for me.
Saint Paul, who can be such a grumpy book-thumper, said that where sin abounds, grace abounds, and I think this is Paul at his most insightful, hopeful, faithful, when it comes to politicians and to me—if by “sin” we mean strictly the original archery term of missing the mark. I realized just then that sin and grace are not opposites, but partners, like the genes in DNA, or the stages of childbirth.
Finally I thought of one true thing, which is that sometimes I act just as juvenile as I ever did, but as I get older, I do it for shorter periods of time. I find my way back to the path sooner, where there is always one last resort: get a glass of water and call a friend.
The best way to change the world is to change your mind, which often requires feeding yourself. It makes for biochemical peace. It’s almost like a prayer: to be needy, to eat, to taste, to be filled, building up instead of tearing down. You find energy to do something you hadn’t expected to do, maybe even one of the holiest things: to go outside and stand under the stars, or to go for a walk in the morning, or in such hard times, both.