Keeping God on Speed Dial
Author Meredith Maran, whose latest book The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention came out in March 2017, was born a “New York Jew” to parents who pretended they weren’t Jewish. They changed their last name, drilled the accents out of Meredith and her brother, and “never, ever spoke of our Jewishness,” Maran recalls. Their hope, she says, was that her father would be more successful in business if he was not Jewish.
Maran wanted to celebrate rituals, such as the Passover Seder, like her Jewish friends were doing. She wanted to know this “nice guy in the sky named God.” At age 6, she “found God” by memorizing the Lord’s Prayer from the back of a comic book. Every night she prayed, standing on her tiptoes on top of her bed, “reaching up toward heaven, where God lived.” When Maran ran away from home at 16, she also left God behind.
In 2012, at age 60, Maran lost her marriage, her best friend, her father, and her life savings. Broke and broken, she moved to Los Angeles to take a fulltime job. Her first night in L.A., “God whispered in my ear,” she says. That was the start of her new relationship with God—and with herself.
“I’ve kept God on speed dial ever since,” Maran says.
Here Maran, who lives in the Silver Lake neighborhood of L.A., talks about her faith, her relationship with God, and the impact of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) on her life and her faith.
Daily Word: Where are you today in your faith?
Maran: Well, you’re catching me at an interesting time. This past year I’ve been going to AA and it’s forcing me to come to grips with my own spiritual beliefs. A lot of what you do in AA is aimed at improving your conscious contact with your higher power. So I’m working on that. I’m pretty new to this and I still have a hefty dose of skepticism about, well, everything. That said, I’m praying ever day now and talking to God a lot. My God.
Daily Word: What does prayer look like to you?
Maran: A friend who is in AA told me you have to go on the assumption that God wants you to be happy, joyous, and free—so anything that happens is happening because (a) God’s in charge and (b) God is wanting the best for you and me. I’m still not sure that God’s in charge, but that’s me: oppositional defiance in all things.
Daily Word: You said when you were growing up, your parents acted as if they weren’t Jewish. What was that like for you?
Maran: Everyone around me was being raised Jewish. From my vantage point, which unfortunately is still true, whatever I can’t have looks a lot better than it probably is. Everything my Jewish friends had looked really good to me. My friends weren’t saying, “Oh, darn, we have to go to synagogue again.” They were coming home with candy apples and noisemakers. They were in on something that sounded pretty fun to me. I wanted to go with them to synagogue at least, but my parents wouldn’t let me. I was mad about it. I felt very deprived. That’s partly how I developed my own relationship with God. After I grew up, I heard so many people tell stories of having their parents’ religion shoved down their throats, so I see a plus side, too, to how I was raised.
Daily Word: Why did you want a relationship with God as a child?
Maran: That’s a good question. I think it had to do with being really troubled. I was kind of a joyous kid, but I was not a happy kid. I was very unhappy. So I was looking for some comfort. My household was not the warmest, to say the least.
Daily Word: Why did you run away from home when you were 16—and why did you leave God behind too?
Maran: I ran away to join the hippie circus. God wasn’t popular with that crowd and certainly religion wasn't, except for mimicking Native American religion. I wasn’t living around practicing Jews anymore and certainly no one around me was talking about God, unless it was on an acid trip. I guess I’m a follower, as it turns out. But also, I was happier after I left home. I wasn’t looking for something to make me feel better because I was finding a lot of things to make me feel better.
Daily Word: What did you do when you left home? Where did you go?
Maran: I ran away to live with my boyfriend when I was 16. We lived in New York with his parents for a while. Then we moved to New Mexico and basically lived in communes and raised food and had goats. We lived on top of a mountain outside Taos that was like a 30-minute drive to the nearest anything. We were surrounded by people doing the same thing.
Daily Word: When did you start letting God back in?
Maran: I never practiced a religion in my life. I was a student of Buddhism, but I don’t think I have ever called myself a Buddhist. I used to go on Buddhist retreats. There was a Zen center right near my house in Oakland and I used to go there and sit at 5:30 in the morning every day. So I was into it, but that didn’t seem to have anything to do with God.
Daily Word: In 2012, when you were 60, you lost everything—your marriage, your best friend, your savings, your father. You had an experience where you felt God whispered in your ear and that was the start of your new relationship with God. How did you know it was God?
Maran: That’s like a baby’s first smile—they always say, “It’s gas.” I didn’t question it. It was just the same guy. It was like, “Here I am.” I assumed it was God because that was the first time since I was a kid that I had felt so alone.
Daily Word: What was life like during those 50 years or so when you weren’t connected with God or thinking about God?
Maran: I made other things God. I’m still doing that. That’s a big source of my problems. That’s why I’m in AA. I made my lovers God. I always had something I was living for—usually it was something political combined with whomever my lover was at that time.
Daily Word: Do you have a sense of why that was?
Maran: Emptiness inside. Is there anything else? Maybe if I get really happy again I’ll think, Okay, I don’t need God now. Maybe I’ll ditch God again. Or maybe I’ll think—possibly accurately—that the reason I got happy again was because I’m in a relationship with God, and I stopped making other things into God. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I’m not there yet. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Daily Word: It sounds like, at age 66, you’re taking a very hard and serious look at your relationship with God. What is that like at this stage of your life?
Maran: I think it’s really the question of feeling that a lot of the unhappiness I’ve had during the past decades has been because of excessive belief in my own power or my own control over what happens and blaming myself when things go wrong in the world or in my family or in my heart. The dramatic sea change would be to not believe I’m in charge. That would change everything. I’m working on that. I’m obviously struggling with all of this. I don’t really have any answers about it at all.
Daily Word: Are you okay with that—with the not knowing?
Maran: No. This whole thing is about needing to know. I’m close enough to the end of my life—I want to be the best person I can be and I want to be happy. Before I die, I would really like that. I would really like to feel like everything’s okay in some way—that no matter what happens, that I would be okay. And I don’t feel okay. It’s not in my DNA to feel that way.
Daily Word: You included God in your memoir, The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention.
Maran: Yeah, he got a speaking part.
Daily Word: Was that a difficult decision? Did you worry that it might turn off some readers?
Maran: I didn’t expect God to show up and I didn’t expect to write about God and I didn’t really expect to catch any grief about it. I genuinely wrote that book and all of my memoirs in a stream-of consciousness way—or maybe in a few more years, I would describe it as God being in charge and not me, you know? I wasn’t trying to control what came out. I just wrote it down the way I felt it. When I turned in the first draft, my editor said, “Wow, there’s a lot of drinking in this book. You might want to dial it back a little bit.” And I said, “Well, there’s a lot of drinking in my life. That’s why it’s in the book.” She didn’t say, “There’s a lot of God in this book,” but if she had, I would have said what I said about the drinking.
Daily Word: In the book you talked about taking a break from drinking. You’re in AA now. So you stopped drinking altogether?
Maran: I’d been drinking with no problem for myself or anyone else for 30 or 40 years. Then when my life fell apart, the meaning of the drinking changed. The experience of it changed. It was the third time I’d stopped, actually. I thought if someone told me they stopped something three times, like a relationship, for example, the relationship probably wasn’t meant to be. I had never gone to AA before or really tried to change anything about my life. I just stopped drinking and did the rest of my life the same. This time I decided to do it differently. Maybe the third time’s the charm.
Daily Word: You’ve said you keep God on speed dial. What does that look like?
Maran: My relationship with God is changing every day. I start every day with a guided meditation. I’m not talking to God, like if you were on your knees praying, but I’m taking myself out of the driver’s seat, which to me equates to talking to God. During the day, I talk to God all the time. I can forget God—a lot. Not so much now, but when I got sober and I was going to AA meetings and starting to consciously work on my relationship with God. Someone would remind me of God and I’d think, Oh, my God—God! I forgot all about you. Now it’s not as much of a surprise. I tend to remember that God is there because I’m having a lot more conversations with God. When I remember to connect with God, I usually feel more relaxed and less stressed.
Daily Word: It’s great that you’re willing to share your struggle with your faith—that you’re trying to get a handle on your relationship with Spirit.
Maran: It’s really about my relationship with myself. I’m really sick of working on that. I feel like I should be on sabbatical, like in a Winnebago. I should be in an emotional Winnebago, just cruising until I die. But that is not in the cards, apparently. It turns out, at least for me, that getting older doesn’t in any way correspond with resting on your laurels. This whole God thing is really about that. It’s about just trying to do better. I just keep moving forward with it.