Mary Karr. I didn't read her first two memoirs when they came out.
But her latest, LIT, I am reading. And loving. Especially the parts about turning to therapy, and turning to spirituality, both of which I have done and do, praise be, not because I am alcoholic like Mary, Lord knows I've tried the drinking and drugging but it didn't stick. The pot I smoked all through high school made me feel even more insecure than I normally did, instead of mellowing me into a purring fuzzy love zombie. And the drinking I did in college and beyond was a joke. I throw up after three beers if I even get that far, and wind up puffy and headachy, needing to rest up for days afterward. So I'm fairly sober. The emotional pain, though. That's the thing. The self-loathing. The crippling lack of self-esteem. The guilt, the doubt. Who wouldn't wring their hands at the sky for relief, drive thirty minutes to spew it all to a complete stranger for weekly fifty-minute sessions?
Mary's shrink tells her two things. One, it wasn't until the fifties that mothers stayed home with their kids thus creating the kind of parenting we see today, where moms spend all day engaging and entertaining their youngsters. So don't for one second think this is normal or necessary. Go ahead and fold that laundry. Make dinner. Relax. And do not feel guilty for not playing with your kid all frigging day. Or for not wanting to. Second, the shrink tells Mary that if she waits until she's angry to punish her kid (her son's three years old at the time), if she waits until she's screaming mad, the kid will learn to stop whatever naughtiness he's making only when he hears Mommy yelling. So put him in time-out (or whatever the punitive menu offers) as soon as the bad behavior begins, and you'll never get to yelling. And the thing about yelling is that it'll create a kid who doesn't listen to you.
I LOVED this.
Because even though I was never a big engager with my kids, the nagging guilt about it has yammered in my head like a slam poet finalist all these years. And if you've been following this blog, then you know where I stand about yelling. I think it sucks for all, and I've been trying not to do it.
Mary turned to the man himself. Jesus. She became Catholic. And she gets down on her knees and prays nightly, something I've tried a couple of times and like her, I feel humble and clean when I'm done. Lighter, you might say.
The other night Mary was in town at the Free Public Library and I went to hear her read and partake in a little Q&A, and when I raised my hand to take the mic and ask her a question, my heart thundered so loud in my ears from nerves I felt like I was fourteen all over again, attending a Duran Duran concert.
I asked Mary what it was about Catholicism that hooked her, versus Buddhism, say, because Catholicism mystifies me for so many reasons. She said it was the carnality. The life-sized statue of Jesus dying on the cross. The speaking aloud names of those the churchgoers would like to pray for (which is not exclusive to Catholicism). She told me I could find out for twenty-six clams, to which I pointed glee-furiously at my bag to show her I've got it already (I got mine from the library and am half done). Then she said again that it was the carnality and that she went from not believing in ANYTHING to believing in all sorts of weirdness, like the resurrection. As a quasi Bu-Jew, it's hard for me to relate. But I'm not getting weighed down in the man-made specifics. The point of a spiritual practice for me, and maybe for Mary Karr, is to ease suffering, ease the loneliness, transmute the fear and find a purpose on this planet larger than myself. So whatever floats your boat toward that horizon without bloodying the waters on the way is all right by me.
After the reading, when it was my turn to have her sign my book, I knew I'd have little time to talk to her. It was a well-oiled operation they ran there at the Free Library, with its velvet ropes and Sharpie labeled Post-its with our names scribbled for personalizing, and I didn't want to seem stalky and weird so I chose not to tell her I'm a published author or that I have twenty personal essays that I'm dying to see published in some form and how inspiring she is to me as a writer, but instead gushed that I'm enjoying LIT so much, especially that passage about her shrink, it was SO validating, because sometimes I feel like I'm going crazy with my three- and five-year old.
She looked me right in the eye and this is what she said: My son now, he looks like something you'd win at a raffle. But it wasn't always that way. You go ahead and let them eat pizza. Let them watch a hundred hours of TV. None of that matters. The most important thing is that you take care of yourself. The most important thing is that you're happy.
I nearly jumped up and down, said, I LOVE THAT!
With her words of reassurance soothing even my aching lumbar, I floated up the street to a cafe where I ordered a warm macadamia nut brownie a la mode to celebrate, and it didn't even bother me that a trio of tipsies were bellowing across the bar at each other about the infidelity of Tiger Woods, f-bombs and celebrities have to set an example and a man has his needs hurtling every which way. Okay, it bothered me a little, but not enough to out-smug them. Only in my head. And I had some doozies.
Later, by my bed, I got down on my knees and clasped my hands and prayed for idiots everywhere. And thanked God for Mary Karr.