Slumping Toward the Altar

Congratulations to Jessica Mesman Griffith and Amy Andrews, who won a 2014 Christopher Award for their book Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters (Loyola Press). Launched in 1949, The Christopher Awards are presented to writers, producers, directors and illustrators whose work affirms the highest values of the human spirit.

There has always been something unappealingly puritanical to me about getting up early. It’s so Midwestern. But I’m glad my husband is an early riser. He’s from Illinois, and he springs from bed before dawn like he just can’t wait to get to work. He plays Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Loud. He also brings me coffee in bed.

Dave’s early rising is one of many ways he’s a mystery to me. I’m a native of that strange country around New Orleans where people like to stay up late and sleep past sunrise. Like my mother, I thrive in the late night and need a good ten hours of unbroken sleep to function.

Of course, I haven’t slept like that in the eight years since our daughter was born. Mornings in our house are a horror show of Dave flipping on all the lights and the children jumping on the bed. I only get up reluctantly.

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Against Gratitude

The other day a Facebook friend linked to a blog post on fifteen ways to raise happier, more grateful children. Just that morning I’d been complaining about how ungrateful our kids are for all the comforts they have and all the sacrifices we make for them—all the writing and living my husband and I don’t do so they can have nutritious food and a good education and lots of playtime in the open air. And what thanks do we get?

Though I know better, I clicked on the link. The blogger approached the whiny, sullen child as a spiritual problem that could be remedied with a combination of crafts and mindfulness exercises. Her advice included passing around a pad of tulip-shaped sticky notes at dinner so your kids can write down what they’re grateful for and then sticking the notes to the window to make a gratitude garden.

My first thought was, if I gave my kids Post-its with instructions to write down what they were grateful for they’d write “butts” on every single page and I’d end up yelling. Then I felt guilty that I haven’t raised kids who would be able to engage in such a wholesome activity without referencing body parts or excrement (which, I assure you, makes them deliriously happy).

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Tuesday Morning at the Old Asylum, Part 2

Continued from yesterday

For most of the fall after we moved to Northern Michigan, I was sick with a bad respiratory infection that turned out to be bacterial bronchitis. The doctor sent me home with an antibiotic and a prescription for an SSRI—an antidepressant.  She said she was concerned about the coming dark months and the cold of my first northern winter and my compromised immune system. The stress of the move, she said, could be why I can’t seem to get well. She’d looked over my family history.

So she prescribed the pills even though I didn’t tell her I was depressed, and I definitely didn’t mention that I’d been haunting the grounds of the old insane asylum brooding over my schizophrenic uncle. Or that I’d bought a pack of Venus disposable razors at Meijer the week before—because shaving my legs was the only sort of self-help plan I’d been able to launch that day—and now I couldn’t get that Bananarama song out of my head.

I didn’t tell her how much I hated the idea of that song being lodged deeply in my subconscious, not just because it’s so awful, but because it’s the sort of thing that would have tormented my uncle to the point of violence. We couldn’t turn on the radio in his presence. When it was really bad, he wasn’t allowed books either.

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Tuesday Morning at the Old Asylum, Part 1

It’s probably not okay to call it the insane asylum. It’s officially the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a mixed-use development with a brick-oven bakery, a coffee roaster, farm-to-table restaurants, a nature school and a place to buy ethically sourced yoga pants.

But there’s something satisfyingly shocking about calling it the insane asylum. It seems right to acknowledge why this place of luxury goods and services looks like the setting for A Series of Unfortunate Events, why it’s so beautiful and so obviously, poignantly, haunted.

It’s the word insane that’s the problem, for who could dislike the word asylum, which connotes protection, refuge and safety?

I love the idea that we used to shelter not only the criminally dangerous but the sick in the soul, the depressed, exhausted and nervous of the world. Not just for our sakes, but for theirs. The words insane asylum speak to me of what the Victorian-era psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride—the designer of these buildings—described as “respectable decorum.”

Traverse City has some of the last standing Kirkbride buildings in America, and as I walk the grounds I feel perhaps a little too much sympathy with the former residents.

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A Feast of Love

It’s nineteen degrees today, the lakes are frozen solid, and the snowdrifts are twice my height, but the sun is shining, and last night, it streamed through the kitchen window as I cooked dinner. My friends in Virginia say the daffodils are coming up. Meanwhile I’m positively giddy to have made it almost halfway through my first winter up north.

We moved to Northern Michigan in time for the worst winter in twenty years, the natives tell me. I don’t know any better, so I figured subzero temperatures and snow that hasn’t stopped falling since November—about one hundred inches so far—was just our lot. Everyone asks how I’m holding up. I’m okay. Nobody is more surprised by that than I am.

By Christmas break I was ready to flee. I had the car packed before Dave walked home from teaching his last class. I was worn out from two months of rib-wrecking bronchitis, early frigid cold, and terrible, wrenching homesickness. I couldn’t wait to see my family. For the first time since childhood, we’d all be together on Christmas Eve.

The ice and snow chased us all the way to Kansas. Our soft Thule car topper was frozen hard when we pulled into my sister’s driveway in Wichita, a day later than planned. We’d gotten stuck in Missouri overnight, and later ran out of gas less than twenty minutes from her house. We were exhausted and our car looked like Doc’s DeLorean after a round of time travel.

I had no intention of going to Christmas Mass. When our family of Catholic and Episcopalian children and ex-Catholic, fundamentalist evangelical protestant parents comes together, the Reformation happens all over again, and at this point in my life I will do anything I can to avoid the drama—including skipping a holy day of obligation. Besides, the weather was terrible.

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