Mari Andrew is a writer, artist, and speaker living in New York. Her first book, Am I There Yet? is a collection of observations being in her 20s and navigating the murky waters of dating, heartbreak, grief, moving, finding community, and creating home in a studio apartment. Her most recent book, My Inner Sky, was written when she was recovering from illness and is an ode to the experiences that make up a whole life, not necessarily a purely happy one.
Mari’s books are calming, honest, and beautiful. Follow the links, here, to buy Am I There Yet?: The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood and her new book My Inner Sky: On Embracing Day, Night, and All the Times in Between.
Mari explains chronic pain and illness in a beautifully tender way through her art. Take a moment to reflect on this post from 2019 or this post about healing from earlier that same year.
Today’s conversation was another beautiful reminder that our bodies change as they heal. Last week, I talked to Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk about this same topic. If you missed the episode or want to re-listen, find it here.
Kate Bowler: I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. I’m a historian, author, aggressively, fast walker. But lately, in a world that promises endless progress, even now in a pandemic, I realized I just need to be a person. It’s hard to give up on the feeling that the life you want is just out of reach. If only you tried to eat this food, find that relationship, just get the kids graduated or the parents this kind of care. Only then will I feel different, better, whole. But that’s not the way this works. When I was 35, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. And here’s the very fun thing about that. The world loves you better when you are shiny, when you are cheerful, when you still believe that your best life now is right around the corner. I’ve written multiple books on the history of the idea that you can always fix your life. So I’m going to be the one to say it. There are some things we can change and some things we can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always getting better. We can have beauty and meaning, community and love, and we will need each other if we’re going to tell the truth. Life is a chronic condition and there’s no cure for being human.
Kate: The in between. In between relationships, in between seasons of independence and dependance, in between jobs, in between friends, in between the diagnosis and healing, in between feeling courageous and feeling afraid, in between the life we have and the life we always wanted. In between the loss and things feeling OK again. The pandemic is one of those in between places. In between now and when everyone has a vaccine. In between despair and the possibility of hope. These in between liminal spaces are uncomfortable, painful, sometimes terrifying. But the liminality is also the place where we are not yet settled, not yet solidified, exposed as one way to put it. But also open to something new. Mari Andrew is an artist and writer who lives in New York City. You have probably seen her relatable and truthtelling illustrations on Instagram. Her books, Am I there yet? And, My Inner Sky, explores the complicated places we all find ourselves in, in our relationships and our health and our career and our grief and our finding home. She teaches workshops on creativity and resilience and how to transform your pain into art. And I have been looking forward to this forever. Mari, I’m so grateful we’re doing this today.
Mari Andrew: I’m so honored to be here. And you’re someone I just know that I immediately want to be friends with. So this is just going well, already
Kate: Well, we both need a little space, I think, in the in between. And when I read your book, I was so struck that you have maybe cultivated that appetite for in betweenness in all of your travels in the precovid world, you had just spectacular wanderlust. I was so impressed. You traveled all by yourself to some of the world’s most gorgeous places, interesting places, Guatemala, Greece, Australia. Tell me about your wandering self. What kind of in between place person, did it make you in and being on the move?
Mari Andrew: I have never felt like I really fit in anywhere and I think that travel, now that you mention it, has been so healing for that, because when you’re traveling, you automatically don’t fit in. So there’s kind of a belonging in the experience of it. It’s like if you’re in high school and you don’t belong, then, you know, that’s that’s so uncomfortable. It feels terrible. But when you’re traveling and you don’t belong, it’s it feels safer, feels peaceful. You weren’t going to anyway, you know, even these little things like my name Mari is it’s hard for people to understand right away. It’s like they haven’t heard it usually. So they’ll say, like Mali or they need it spelled or they’ll like call me a completely different name. And when I’m traveling, it’s that same experience that it’s like they’re not going to get it anyway. So there’s a sort of comfort in just knowing, like, there’s no need to explain here. Like automatically both of us are going to be a little awkward in this in this exchange. So the discomfort is almost like comfortable. It’s almost like neutralizing a sort of discomfort.
Kate: Yeah. And maybe a little grace, too, with ourselves. Like, you know, I don’t know what to do, but I’ve never been here before.
Mari Andrew: Totally. Totally. Yeah. And I’ve, I’ve often traveled during times during really in between times after heartache or going through grief or illness. When you’re traveling by yourself, you don’t have to explain yourself and you can do whatever you want. So I think there’s some comfort there too, where I can really exist in this strange place where I am emotionally and spiritually and just exist there with with no apologies, no explanations which is beautiful.
Kate: Yeah. No splitting your desert. That does sound really nice.
Mari: Exactly, it’s wonderful.
Kate: Yeah. On one of your trips, an absolutely terrible disease struck. You were diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. For people who might not know it’s this really awful autoimmune disorder that attacks your nerves. Is that right?
Kate: For people who might not be familiar with the disease, what was this experience like for you?
Mari: Great pronunciation of Guillain-Barre by the way.
Kate: I grew up in the french part of Canada, so we’re good.
Mari: Oh yeah, you’re perfect.
Kate: We have only very sophisticated illnesses here Mari.
Mari: Right. Only this chicest for you. Yeah, I was actually quite, quite honored to get such a such fabulous sounding disease. It sounds like a dessert or something like that but yeah it’s a really rare, really strange sudden disease. It’s where your immune system attacks your body instead of attacking whatever virus or minor ailment you might have. So I don’t know if I had a cold or something, but my body, whatever it was, freaked out, attacked my nerves instead. And that partially paralyzed me, mostly from hip down. And it does that really quickly and it can spread up to your head. I was really lucky they caught it before it did that. The rest of your however long it takes, it can take years. That’s the recovery part. When your nerves are growing back their lining. And that is the really tough part when you’re learning to walk again and kind of learning to move again. And I found that so much more difficult than actually being paralyzed, which was pretty bad. So the whole thing was it was really rough.
Kate: Yeah. And you weren’t home?
Mari: Right, I was in southern Spain and I got it when I was traveling in a really tiny town outside of Granada. And then I went back to Granada for care. And I was in the hospital there for a month enjoying such delicacies as Hospital Flan and other Spanish. Actually, the food was so good. My mom and I still talk about it all the time She came to visit me. And then I left after a month, went back home to live with my mom, and I was just stuck in the suburbs, not able to walk very well for a few months, which was torture.
Kate: It sounds like the. I don’t know, I guess I always thought the bad thing happening would be the worst thing happening, but I think you’re right the after is worse. Why is that?
Mari Andrew: Well, you know, it’s weird, right? It’s funny, I’ve talked to a lot of people who have had serious illness and about their recovery time, and they all seem to agree it’s it’s the hardest emotionally, because I think what’s happening is that it’s a really difficult time to explain to people and even explain to yourself, because when you’re sick, it’s so obvious what’s happening. And people can show up in very obvious ways, like sending things and texting and kind of saying the right or wrong things that they’re trying. And it’s it’s pretty easy to understand what illness is. We have a framework for it. But recovery, the time in between illness and health. People kind of want to put you in either box, and I found that the expectation of what I was supposed to feel like was so hard to sit with, like people either wanting me to feel better so that they could, so it was easier for them. And I completely understand that. I’m actually working as a hospital chaplain now, and I have this team.
Kate: I love you. I don’t I just met you, but I love you. Thank you for doing that. Bless you. What a gorgeous response to that. Holy crap.
Mari: Yeah. Is it gorgeous? I’m so awkward at it. I’ve only been doing it for a month and I’m so awkward. And one of the things that I’m that is really difficult is I like I’ve experienced this. I’ve been there. And I will even when a patient says, oh, I’m feeling better today, I’ll think, oh, thank God. Like, I’m off the hook, like I can I can, you know, my work here is done. I can say, like, a really easy prayer and just say, like, you know, thanks that she’s feeling better bye! Because it’s really hard to sit with someone who says, I was feeling better yesterday and today I’m not. And I think when you’re in recovery, it’s so up and down and people want to believe that it’s a straight line and that you’re heading toward full health and that you’ll never have issues again. But mine was so bumpy and I just didn’t know how to be there. And so I would. I found myself missing being in the hospital I miss.
Kate: Yes. Oh, totally.
Mari: Missed that care and it’s kind of an infantilizing experience where people are just taking care of you all the time. And then suddenly you’re in the big bad world and you’re so fragile and people don’t know what to do with you. And they, they want you to be better, but you don’t really feel better. So I think that is just such a hard experience and that that really parallels to so many other experiences. It’s not just in between sickness and health, but maybe coming out of a breakup or coming out of a job or all kinds of things. Where we are now in this pandemic is total in between world.
Kate: Yeah, I was terrible at being at home right after my I mean, I’m just terrible at recovery. I’m impatient. I I’m I think my fear makes me more impatient. I’m hard to care for because I’m always saying I’m fine when I’m not fine
Mari: And then mad when they don’t show up.
Kate: I lie and i’m resentful.
Mari: yeah, yeah.
Kate: I think I, I find it very hard to have patience for not knowing yet what it even means to be like. What will I even be? I loved when you wrote like is this I’m going to say this as well as you wrote it but like is this 60 percent me is the seventy five? Like how do I how do I run the math on who I am and will if I’ll ever be the same again.
Mari: Exactly. Exactly. It’s it’s interesting hearing so much language these days during the pandemic about going back to normal. And I, I totally fall into that too it’s so appealing to think that you’re going to go back to a place that was safe and that you understood. But that’s so not how it works. And at a certain point during my recovery, people were always asking me, are are you 80 percent like what? What percentage of normal are you? And I would think, well, I don’t remember what it felt like before. I don’t remember how that felt. So I can’t really gauge. And you just have to plunge into this new I don’t want to say new normal.
Kate: We’re both avoiding it, like there is no new normal. But you’re right. Like it is t’s a reinvention of who we are and it there and that there’s no metrics. You can’t say better or worse. It’s just different.
Mari: It’s just different. Exactly. Yeah, it’s just different.
Kate: One thing I noticed in your art and in your writing is that there are some things that pain has obviously crystallized. There’s just beautiful, true things that you write and make that say, you know, it is OK that we have a different relationship with our bodies and our friends and our approach to life. And and I love it when you wondered, isn’t this all beautiful too? Like can’t this still be good somehow.
Mari: Yeah, yeah, we have such a limited range of emotions and experiences that we call good. And so that’s just never appealed to me to have such a limited supply. I want I want it all. I want all of the big spansive emotions that are available to me.
Kate: I think one of the most punitive parts about our very therapeutic cultures turn toward aggressive, positive thinking is that it always forces us into future thinking, where if if we’re living in a place of kind of middle like what what might yet be, it prevents us from being here where we are, and you give such a strong pitch for giving up on positive thinking for a little bit more present thinking, and that it seems to make you wonderfully awake to the details of the world, I was just thinking about all the lists that you write. You’re so great on lists of like lists of delightful things, things that you notice. Would you like who does it make us when we just kind of are able to shift our horizons a little back from the, from that future, that positive future, and they tune a little bit more of a present mindedness.
Mari: I love that framework. I haven’t thought about it that way. But that’s beautiful. You’re right. It’s I found myself during this pandemic time, I think, like many people thinking about sort of my alternate life self all the time, I was sort of preoccupied with, what would she be doing?
Kate: Is she happy. Where is she traveling?
Mari: Yeah, where is she right now and what is she up to? You know, like everyone I saw these dates fly away from my calendar concerts and plays and things like that. And it just it felt to me like there was actually this other person who was existing and I was sort of the B side, like I was the bizarro version. And she was out there living her best life. And I think that’s so common when we’re going through anything hard because we want to believe. Oh, there’s like my my perfected soul is out there, like having such a great time. And I’m kind of the flawed version. I’m the I’m the flaw. I’m the mistake.
Kate: Yeah, Mari, yes, absolutely. I had that feeling this morning. Thank you for saying that.
Mari: The reason I’m the reason that we can’t go to the play or whatever, but, um. But I think this is so, so hard. It’s so hard. So I don’t want to act like I know what I’m doing here, but. I think really acknowledging there is no alternate like this, is it this is your life until you die, and that’s when you can be really observant and really attentive and sometimes what you’re observing sucks. It’s not like fun. It’s not always like magical interactions that you see on the sidewalk. But, you can at least then observe things in your own emotional landscape, your own psyche. And if nothing else, that’s going to make you more empathetic, more interesting, more self compassionate, all of that good stuff. But it’s so hard. I know it’s so hard. We just want to, like, pretend that we have any control over anything, and that’s all, that’s all this is.
Kate: Future Kate has a lot of great ideas.
Mari: Totally. Her hair is exquisite.
Kate: We’re so proud of her. When we talk about in between, you give language not just to the kind of physical pain that you’re also experiencing, but also just the incredible emotional shift that you’re going through at the same time as you were thinking through what it would mean to mourn the life after your dad. Sounds like that was a very complicated time of trying to figure out, what is the way forward when there’s no way back here?
Mari: Yes, yes to all of that. Yeah, my dad and I were estranged for many years before he died. And that is one of those circumstances that really got me thinking, like, man, we have such a poverty of vocabulary for the wait for the things we experience in life. I noticed, you know, when you go through something difficult, people tend to have one of like five reactions. So you tend to hear the same things over and over. And that’s totally like normal. And society sets that up and it’s fine. But it’s kind of interesting. Whenever I talked about my father recently died or he died a couple of years ago or whatever, the first thing people would ask was, were you close? And I think it’s the same thing as like, oh, are you feeling better today? It’s like, can I be off the hook? Like, can I can I kind of, like, let you
Kate: How bad is this? That I’m asking about.
Mari: Do I have to really go into this? And so when I would say, oh, we were estranged or you know, or if I would use a euphemism, you know, we weren’t that close or something. I think there was just such an immediate sigh of relief like, oh, thank God I don’t have to worry about her. And again, that’s that’s normal. But it was it was sort of amazing how much time it took for me to realize that my grief was still very real and even more intense in a lot of ways than I think as sort of more traditional grieving dynamic, because there are so many other emotions that came into it. And I didn’t realize that grief looks so different for everyone. It’s like you think of grief and you think of someone crying on the floor or whatever. It’s like a Picasso blue painting. But it can be so many things it can be laughter. It can be frustration. It can be anger in all of those things. So, yeah, that’s been it’s amazing to me. Like how long of a journey that’s been. It was only six years ago yesterday. But it feels like yeah. It’s so it’s such an ongoing process.
Kate: Yeah. Poverty of language and poverty of ritual too it sounds like that you didn’t have access to the kinds of steps you could walk through that would help give a little more context to what you’re feeling and how complicated it was.
Mari: Yeah. And I think there’s so many areas of life where that experience happens, where people say, wow, I’m really overwhelmed with emotion or an experience here and there’s really no place to put it in society. There’s no it doesn’t fit in a box. So what do I do? I kind of have to make my own way of going through it, my own rituals, my own way of grieving, which is not easy.
Kate: And then you did.
Mari: I did.
Kate: You did. What did you do?
Mari: I didn’t go to his funeral for a lot of reasons, but I really needed a way to mark my own grief. I could see why funerals exist. You know, it’s it’s so necessary to have that time. And so I did my own memorial service for him, which was a little brunch with my friends, and we read readings from his favorite movies and played his favorite songs. And I talked about things that I learned from him and it was so beautiful and so meaningful. And it was just like ten people. And we drink mimosas and got drunk and it was perfect. And I think what he would have wanted and I felt so close to him and yeah, you can do your own thing, it turns out in life. Weird but true.
Kate: I think neither of us are very big fan of the idea that pain is here to teach us lessons. No thanks. I feel good. I feel all topped up. But there is something about pain that forces us to reimagine new ways to live inside of our limitations, to live beautifully inside of the things that we can’t change. I don’t mean for this question to sound weird, but like what have you been awakened to now that you’re outside of a lessons framework, you’re just you’re awake in the world. What does it make you notice?
Mari: That’s beautiful. That’s a beautiful way of asking that. Yeah, it’s funny, I, I still get so many questions. Like what profound lessons have you learned that you can share so that we can have the fast track to whatever.
Kate: Oh totally. I used to get questions because I put so much time almost dying. I used to have people ask me what heaven was like and I was like, oh, yeah, yeah, I actually have not died and returned, I just was very sick. So.
Mari: Can’t help you on that one.
Kate: There’s no fasttrack.
Mari: Yeah. You know, I think pain is so hard to talk about because we just don’t know how it’s so it’s so complicated. It certainly I mean, it is a teacher in its own way, and I don’t want to dismiss that. But I also kind of I’m so reluctant to admit that because.
Kate: Oh yeah, no, how dare you? Because at least for me, because it justifies other people being fine with you going through it, in my opinion.
Mari: Totally. Totally. Oh, my gosh. Yeah, exactly. I would say that if anything, pain is an opportunity. It’s like you’re going down a road that you think looks a certain way and then, whoa, the road goes a different way. And it might be really ugly, like an industrial wasteland. Like when I get lost in Gowanus near where I live in Brooklyn, and it’s like, oh my gosh, why is there a parking lot full of school busses? Like, what is this place? But again, it’s sort of it’s like focusing in on where exactly am I right now. Whoa, not many people have been here and what am I going, who am I going to be here? Who am I going to be on this new path? It’s definitely not where I was headed, but there might be some interesting things here. It’s not going to be I don’t want to say it’s going to be beautiful because it’s not necessarily. But what are the interesting things that I can pick up on here? And also, if I am here, it’s likely that other people have also been here.
Kate: That’s great.
Mari: And what kind of community can I make with those people? What understanding do we have? And I do love the experience of talking to someone who’s been through similar things. And it’s like, oh my gosh, we have this language available to us that really isn’t available to other people. So it’s like we can speak our own little language and that as a writer, that’s obviously something quite thrilling for me. And I’m sure that even if you’re not a writer, you know, there’s different ways that that can bring you meaning or fulfillment or, I don’t know, whatever word you want to use.
Kate: Yeah, it definitely is a secret handshake, I think.
Mari: Yes. Yes. For sure.
Kate: Oh wait, you too? What is this parking lot full of school buses?
Kate: I think your art reflects this very specific way of telling the truth, you make these delightful watercolor and ink drawings that are so delicate and they’re layered with this text that describes the world exactly how it is. It’s beautiful and terrible and everything in between. Your new book is gorgeous. I love that you also have these illustrations just exploding with color.
Mari: Oh, thank you.
Kate: Looking at one from your new book, you painted these tree rings. I loved it, now I kind of want you to read it.
Mari: I want to carry pain like a tree does, let the rings of my experiences push me to grow wider and stronger. I never want to forget each ring that holds everything I’ve witnessed, loved and lost. But I want to keep expanding.
Kate: That’s so good.
Mari: Thank you.
Kate: It creates this permission. That’s how I feel when I see your stuff. I just I feel permission in it to embrace the rawness of humanity and the little tenderness of it without without being precious about it. There’s nothing like, oh oh pain. I don’t feel that. I do feel permission there, though. And it sounds like people have really resonated with your work and the language that you give them.
Mari: Oh gosh. That’s so that’s so nice. That’s so nice. I mean, I think my favorite art and writing gives those permission slips. I think when you hear someone talk about an experience you’ve had, it’s certainly just makes you feel like you you belong more in the world, which is I think belonging is such a theme that comes up so often. This one about the tree rings. I remember just looking at the stump and thinking, oh my gosh, it carries like all of its ages in it. And there’s so many times throughout my life, throughout the day when I feel like I’m 11 and then I feel like I’m 14, and then I feel like I’m sixty five. And I think I carry this all in me and I carry all of my sadness and I carry all of my joy. And I think what we’re not really taught is that it all belongs, it all belongs. So whatever your feeling is the feeling that belongs. Yesterday I did a little Q&A about love and romance and breakups, and I got so many questions that were like, why do I feel this way? Why do I still care about him? Why do I, why is it so hard to get over this person or whatever? And I’m just thinking, oh, man, what a loss that we aren’t told that all of our feelings belong like if you feel it, than it’s worth it. You know, like if you’re crying over something, then it’s worth crying over because you’re doing it. And I think we think certain feelings belong and certain ones don’t. And that’s such a such a loss.
Kate: Yeah. All the places you explore the place between things and just thinking about. The between being who you were before and then having this chronic illness, between having your dad, between losing your dad, between loves, between relationships, between places, I, I just really appreciate that you’re there bringing us into a different place of belonging, even if it is still in between. That’s. That makes me feel at home in a place I wouldn’t expect to feel at home.
Mari: Oh, that’s so beautiful. Thank you.
Kate: Mari. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you forever. So this conversation has brought me so much joy. Thank you so much for just getting it, getting what it’s like to be not quite there. And not quite here, but it’s but it still has to be where we are.
Mari: It’s all we’ve got, right? It’s all we’ve got. It’s all we’ve got. Yeah.
Kate: Unless there’s something else you could promise me, like the future or.
Mari: Totally a very shimmery version of the past a very rosy. Yeah, that sounds good.
Kate: If you could draw it for me, I’m sure it’ll happen. Mari, thank you so much for doing this with me. It was a joy.
Mari: Oh, my gosh. It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Kate: Sometimes when we feel lost, floating outside of what we know, who we wanted to be and where we wanted to be, it’s tempting to feel small and wonder, maybe. Maybe I should just shut this down a bit. Maybe no one needs to hear from me. Maybe that’s enough for now. In between can be an awfully lonely place. So my loves bless you if you are there in that place that is in between. Liminal, exposed, that place of waiting and vulnerability, a place that doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of normal because there aren’t words for it and it isn’t there yet. So instead of trying to escape it, let us settle there for a moment. Blessed are we somewhere unnamable fully present to our reality, tracking it with all of its subtle gradations and colors and contrasts, the sweetness and the struggle, the stuck and not quite fitting. Authentic to it, mapping the full strangeness of the new emergent landscape. Blessed are we, dear ones, not calling it too soon, not settling for the neat and buttoned up, the too tied up, the not quite true. Bless all of it, the way we might widen our gaze to encompass it and embrace it. And bless you, moving into the unknown, waiting, daring to hope.
Kate: Don’t miss an episode. Be sure to subscribe to Everything Happens wherever you listen to podcasts. And I would love to hear from you. Find me online at KateCBowler or at Kate Bowler Dotcom. Today’s episode was made possible by our partners Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment and Duke Divinity School, who support our faith and media project. We are so grateful for their generosity and investment in what we do. And of course, my perfect team, Jessica Richie, our executive producer, Harriet Putman, our associate producer, Keith Weston, our sound designer. And the rest of the Everything Happens crew who make this project so much fun. Dan Wells, AJ Walton, Mary Jo Clancy, J.J. Dickinson, Launa Steward, Kelly Dunlap, Erin Lane, Jeb and Sammi. Thank you. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.