The Only Way Through is Through

“All roads to success, you gotta go through pain. You gotta go through the road of pain, baby. (Yeah) You keep talking about mistakes (uh-huh), you keep talking about the past (oh yeah), you keep talking about your trials (that’s right)… I want you to know that everybody that’s ever been great, everybody, has had an obstacle to overcome (truth!)… listen to me very close, sometimes it’s going to be hard (AMEN), you’re going to look all around you and nowhere do you see success (ain’t that right), nowhere do you see anything that remotely looks like success (SO true). But you gotta embrace the fact, you gotta believe that all that’s happening right now, if you keep pressing, if you keep pushing, guess what? One day, it’s gonna be your day. You gotta look around you at nothing that looks like success and you gotta believe that one day it’s going to be MY day, but one day can’t be your day if you give up, if you quit, no day will ever be your day.”

I wish I’d had that video when I was getting started as an entrepreneur. Maybe it would have stopped me. Maybe it would have inspired me. Maybe it would have helped me all those many times that I was going to quit, get a job, turn in the towel and trade my time, my one wild and precious life, for a salary and benefits.

Maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything. I have a little secret. I’ve thought of quitting over and over and over again. One time, I went so far as to consult with my coach to build a plan for re-entering the full time work force. I had emails drawn up and ready to send to clients and my network, announcing my decision and positioning myself to become a job seeker.

And every time I’ve hit one of those moments, something has stopped me. The time described above, it was a completely unexpected check from a prior client who explained it was the deposit on a new retainer and I knew–I KNEW–it wasn’t time to stop. That it was a sign from the universe to keep going, to go. Thank you, universe. And HA. You know who you are.

And it’s never been easy, not yet. It’s been painful. I have walked through so much pain and sometimes I’ve looked around and what I’ve seen was nothing like success, nothing in sight that looked like success. And I don’t know that I’ve believed, but something in me must have believed, that someday would be my day.

I can taste it now. I think it’s coming. I can feel that day coming, so close it’s breathing on me. Or maybe it’s just a moment for me to take a breath before more pain.

No matter. The only way to success is through. And so I will carry on.

Tiny Ripples

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Everything you do creates ripples. Most of the time, those ripples are tiny. That piece of gum you spit out by the roadside, for instance. Maybe it got stuck in somebody’s shoe and she wasted ten minutes trying to get it out and for the rest of the life of those shoes her foot makes a teeny little smacking sound when she walks on a hard surface.

Teeny.

Likewise, when you took an extra moment to push that cart into place at the grocery store, and maybe grabbed an extra one and pushed it into place too. You saved an employee a half-minute’s work, prevented a few people having to walk out of their way by half a second. Ripples.

Small, small ripples.

So maybe you think it doesn’t matter so much. So what if someone arrives at work just a touch more cranky one morning because you cut her off in traffic. What does it matter if a single homeless guy smiles for half a moment because you handed him the fifty cents you had in your pocket?

Probably not much, frankly. The ripples are real, yes, but so small as to hardly be noticeable in the great pounding and fury of the world.

But have you ever been to an old folk’s home? Because this is where it gets real. This is where the ripples come back and lap against shore.

There’s always that one cranky lady everybody laughs at because she’s so pointlessly nasty. You can’t help but feel sorry for her, too, because nobody comes to see her. She’s lonely and her life is a wreck and here it ends in this asylum where the pudding has lumps no matter how much you abuse the girl who brings it to you. This is the world she lives in, the world she created for herself.

But if you’ve spent much time around old folks, you know it goes the other way too. There’s always that beautiful lady at whose feet you are honored to sit and listen. And when that lady takes her final journey out of this world, a hundred people come to share a thousand stories of how her gentle spirit touched them.

A pebble thrown into a lake makes only the smallest of changes. But a lifetime of pebbles can dam a river or flood a village.

Every moment of your life is a pebble you hold in your hand. You get to choose where and how to use that pebble. Whatever you do with it will create ripples–maybe tiny, maybe not. You can’t control what happens once that pebble is tossed, and you can’t control the ripples caused by others. But you can decide what kind of ripples you want to create. You can choose to let them create something beautiful, though it require your whole life to do it.

And in twenty years, what will you look out and see? In forty years, what sort of world will you have made?

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One Thing I’m Not Good At

I’m good at a few things. I’m a pretty good writer. I was always top of class in literature. I like plays, and poems, and novels, and short stories. I’m good at understanding all those things. I’m good at singing and thinking and … parenting? (Jury’s out on the last one.)

I am NOT good at many things too.

One thing I am not good at is math. And by “math” I mean “counting.” And by “counting” I mean knowing how many days I’ve been blogging for. And by that I mean yesterday was not Day 30, today is. Premature celebration.

Fortunately, I never made any promises about these entries being any good, so instead of trying to write something good today when I thought I wouldn’t have to write at all, I’m just going to tell you about my day and then we’re all going to say, “Whew, 30 blog entries. For real this time. Done done done done done.” And then we’re going to go have a beer.

It was, all in all, a mixed bag day. We tried to get rid of the rest of the stuff from our old house and pretty much completely failed to do so. It turns out that when you post details about really nice stuff that you are offering for a very low price, and all people have to do is show up between the hours of 10am and noon, this is what happens:

  • Some of them text you at 8:15am to find out if you still have the items you said would not be available before 10am and when you tell them yes but that the items will not be available until 10am, they say “Oh, whoops, we’re already on the road, smiley face” and you say, “That stinks. Get some breakfast. Smiley face.”
  • Some of them text you at 1pm to find out if they can come look at the items now that it’s only one hour past when you said you would no longer be available, and then they will come (because you are still there and the thing did not sell so you may as well) and look at your item and tell you everything that is wrong with it and ask if they can maybe give you half of what you were asking even though it’s already 10% of what the item cost new, and then they will stand around for 45 minutes waiting for you to agree to a price that you have already told them in no uncertain terms is not an acceptable price.
  • Some of them will not show up at all during the stated hours. Wait, no, ALL of them will not show up during the stated hours. As in, you will sit there for two hours and NOBODY will come. During the stated hours. Only before and after.
  • Some of them will show up twenty minutes early and text you from the road in front of your house and you will text them back that you will open the door at 10am and when, at precisely 10am, you turn the sign around that says, “We will open at 10am” so that it says, “Come on in,” they will text you with the message: “You said 10 clock whats up” [sic].
  • These same people ^ will tell you that they will come back for the item in one hour and that they won’t bother putting their money down because “ain’t nobody buyin that” har har and then not come back and you will decide that they are planning to come back and steal it. And they probably are. So you take it apart yourself and remove it from the property so that you can later donate it to a dog rescue, which adds another hour to your day.

You will finally arrive back home at around 2:45pm and remember that you have a friend coming over and it’s purely by luck they haven’t arrived already*.

And you will realize that THIS is why you nearly always donate good usable items instead of trying to sell them. Because you hate people. Because you love everyone and want others to benefit from your unwanted items. But really because you hate people.

Who needs a nice fridge?

Who needs a nice fridge?

* And that will be the “mixed bag” part of the day which is to say, you’ll get to watch this friend fall apart with laughter at the autistic reporter. And that will be the best part of the day because you hate people but not all of them.

30-Day Round-Up

We made it. Thirty days. This is it, folks. Last one for probably about a year while I recover from this marathon. So let’s round it all up, shall we?

What I Wrote About:

30 Day Challenge Chart

 

I don’t know why it won’t post that as a larger image, but if you click on it you can see what each color represents. Two things are clear from the data:

  • I like to philosophize and confess. Combine the green and purple slices and you’ve got a picture of just how much I like it. There’s a great deal of overlap between my philosophical and my confessional essays. I had a hard time deciding which to put where, and almost counted them as a single category. Then decided that would be way too big a slice, and divided them up.
  • I don’t really do advice.That’s the little bitty light blue sliver. Occasionally, on request, I offer tips, but mostly I think people are smart enough to figure things out, so I prefer to tell stories and let people draw their own conclusions.

Since the philosophical/confessional topics are so large, I decided to break them down further. If the numbers don’t add up, that’s because I was more fluid in interpretation on these, sometimes including the same entry in more than one category, and in some cases leaving entries out altogether if they didn’t fit in with anything else.

What I philosophized about:

30 Day Challenge Philosophical Chart

 

Again, click to actually read the chart. WordPress, y u no display full size?

It was also interesting to see how readers responded to each entry. Ultimately, I wasn’t able to discern any patterns, but perhaps you will.

Most Popular Entries of Past 30 Days (in reverse order):

5. “What, Exactly, My Book is About” Here’s where I published a brief synopsis of my book for the first time ever. It generated a fair amount of discussion and was a particularly fun one to post. 35 views.

4. “Those Are Pearls” This entry came with a trigger warning. It featured three real-life horror stories and some philosophizing (imagine that) about the importance of not looking away from the terrible things in life. 39 views.

3. Name My Book I’m delighted that this one hit the top five, and even more delighted that it received more on-blog comments than any entry before or since. It’s the one where I asked for help on the title of my book. I still don’t have a title, but I sure have a lot of great ideas for one. 50 views.

2. “No Black Woman, Indeed No Woman” This piece highlights the racism (and sexism) that is still shockingly prevalent in our society, and encourages women to speak up so their voices will be heard. It received 53 views.

And, the number one most popular entry, which broke this blog’s all-time record:

1. “If People Wanted You to Write Warmly About Them” This confessional-style essay about abuse and the importance of telling our uncomfortable stories took the highest honors, blowing out all previous viewing records for the blog (the previous record holder was Riding the Whale from November 19, 2013, at 152 views). How many of those viewers were former college classmates who wanted to know if the guy I dated when they knew me was really as bad as they thought? I suspect he was worse. 181 views.

Most Popular

Least Popular Entries (tied at 4 views each):

  • What Do Your Dreams Look Like These Days? What is it that makes one entry popular, while others go barely noticed? Sometimes the heavily read pieces get shared with new networks, and that always helps. But sometimes an entry I really like flies right under the radar, like this one, which compares my favorite homecoming story in all of literature, Penelope and Odysseus, with the task of a middle-aged writer trying to make sense of her dreams.
  • We Are Not Pretending. And sometimes the entries that fly under the radar deserve it. Like this one, which was basically a cop-out on a night when I really really really did not want to write. I think it’s about my book, but it’s not even memorable enough for *me* to remember. It did have an awesome list-picture-meme-thing in it though.
  • The Characters That I Am Not. And this is the one I’m saddest got so few views. It’s the one where I actually published snippets from my book ACTUAL SNIPPETS Y’ALL. I introduced three characters I love and nobody read them. Sad face.

Here is what I learned from the challenge:

  • Not much. I mean, what am I supposed to *do* with the above information?
  • I did get thirty extra hours of writing practice though, so there’s that.

I also hit some milestones:

  • Surpassed 100 posts on this blog.
  • Hit an all-time high (for this blog) on views on March 23

So, about that “not much” & the thirty hours. It’s true that an extra 30 hours practice never hurt no one (I write real good now). It’s just that, well, here’s a conservative estimate of the number of hours I have spent actively practicing the art of writing over the course of my life:

  • 5 hours per week every week of my childhood from the age of 7 to 18: 2,860 hours (I was the kid tucked into a corner writing every chance she could)
  • 10 hours per week every school week of college: 1,280 hours (English major…)
  • 2 hours per week every non-school week of college: 160 hours
  • 5 hours per week every week of grad school: 780 hours
  • 1 hour per week every week from end of grad school until I became a professional writer: 208 hours
  • 15 hours per week for the first 8 years of professional writing career: 6,240 hours
  • 25 hours per week for the past 5 years: 6,500 hours

Total: 18,028 Hours

According to Malcolm Gladwell, that qualifies me for mastery. Ha. I feel like I’m still swimming in the kiddie pool of everything there is to know, but the point is, thirty hours is tiny. But it’s still a difference, and I’m not sorry I did it.

In fact, I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it (mostly), it’s great to know I CAN do it because I really HAVE done it, it was fun to hit some milestones, and I’ve had a blast watching statistics after each entry. I think I’ve gained some new followers, and I know I’ve had some great discussions.

And maybe I learned a teensy bit about letting go.

And with that, I’m letting go. ‘Night y’all, sleep tight, see you in a few. Bless.

We Are Not Pretending

Remember when I realized the book needed some changes, but we were pretending that they were minor? We are not pretending any more. This has gotten real, y’all. We are all the way down deep in #4.

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This morning I realized it’s not just the last part that needs rearranging, it’s the whole thing. My book is a mess. I am a mess. (So is my house but whatever.)

On the bright side, I’m learning a lot about maintaining and building tension. The sort of thing you only learn by studying and applying, then studying more and applying more. Well, the sort of thing *I* only learn that way. Maybe other people are born knowing. I don’t know.

It’s messy and chaotic but I’m learning.

Sorta like life, you know? You figure out you’ve screwed something up, and you try again. And you keep trying and you keep learning and it’s messy and chaotic and it seems like you’ll never get there and you won’t. You won’t ever get “there.” The only thing you’ll ever get to is “here.” So you may as well enjoy it and learn something as you go.

And now I’ll expand on that idea, draw it out, present a catchy little story that illustrates the point and wrap it all up in a nice tidy bow.

Frig it. No I won’t. I don’t want to write in my blog right now. I want to work on my book. I want to rearrange some chapters, rewrite a couple others, add some details in a couple places and give one of the minor characters a bigger role to play. I think maybe I can sort of see what needs to happen for this to work right.

#5 here I come.

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” James Joyce

Those Are Pearls

*****TRIGGER WARNING.*****

If you’re suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental anguish, save this one for a day when you’re feeling stable. Or not at all. This entry contains graphic images and stories of extreme suffering.

If you do decide to go on, please read the whole thing and don’t look away.

*****SCROLL DOWN FOR STORY*****

 

 

 

 

 

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“I have told of only a few of the many things that happened in Camp D-1. There was so much suffering from sickness and diseases. The most common disease was beri-beri. There were two kinds of it, the wet beri-beri and the dry Bberi-beri [sic]. Of the two, the dry was the hardest on the men and some died from it. The difference was that in the wet beri-beri the bones became soft, and when one pressed on the shin bone, the impression would last for hours before it came back to normal. One always had a “washed out” feeling like the sooner you died, the better off you would be. This was the kind that I had. Dry beri-beri had lots of pain and burning to go with it. There were many nights in the winter that men would go to bed with their feet in small wooden tubs filled with cold water, and in no time at all the water would be hot. A number of men had this type disease, and it was nothing unusual for them to find that a toe had dropped off during the night. There was one man in my squad who lost three of his toes in this manner. The little toe would drop off first, and then the other smaller toes would follow in order.

“Early in 1944 a Marine by the name of Robinson whose number was 986 was having trouble with his urinal tract. He just could not pass water, and there were no catheters in camp. This man died a horrible death as each hour you could see his stomach swelling larger and larger, until he finally burst and then died.”

-From the journal of Corporal Pierce Wardlow, WWII POW in Japan.

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“On 27 July 1994, Carter [this iconic image's photographer] drove his way to the Braamfontein near the Field and Study Centre, an area where he used to play as a child, and committed suicide… aged 33. Portions of Carter’s suicide note read:

“I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners …”

[Source: Wikipedia]

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Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike”

“In South Africa, one person is raped every 26 seconds, according to aid groups and local organizations. Forty percent of those are children and babies.”

Read  more.

“One in four men in South Africa admitted to raping someone and many confessed to attacking multiple victims, according to a study conducted by the Medical Research Council and reported by the Mail and Guardian. The study also found that gang rape is common in South Africa because it is considered a form of male bonding, reports the BBC.”

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About a year ago, a blogger I follow started posting entries about a friend of hers whose 12-year-old son Jack died in a drowning accident. My own oldest son was born the same year as Jack. I did not read those entries.

I wanted to not even think about it, to not think about it. But I kept thinking about it.

About that same time, I started writing my novel and before long I realized that this writing thing is what I’m supposed to do. It’s what I’m here in this crazy world for.

And I realized that if I’m going to use my one wild and precious life to its fullest, I have to stop looking away from obscenity. I have to look it full in the face, in all its awesome, terrible glory.

Jack’s story started calling me back. I listened to the call. I flowed into that icy cold water with him, and I flowed into his mother’s heart as it fell apart. I watched her look for him under that bridge. It felt like when you’ve lost something, maybe you’ve left your wallet somewhere, in a shop perhaps, and when you go back for it, it’s gone. You know it’s gone, but you’re convinced it’s still there. You keep looking. You look under the table. You ask the cashier, and then you go back to the table again. You look at the back of the chair. And under the table again. If you just keep looking maybe it will appear.

Except it’s not your wallet, it’s your son.

And some day soon you will walk into his room and you will look at the lego creations lined up on a shelf and you will remember that his hands, his living hands, built those, and you will pack them up anyway and you will give them away, because you can’t make a child go on living once they’re gone. You don’t get to do that.

It is only one of the horrors and sorrows of this insane, mixed up world. And if you want the truth of life, which you must if you want to be a writer, you can’t look away. You must not step back, turn back, go a different direction. You must go straight into the pain, you must step unflinchingly into the heart of darkness.

Then you must keep going, onward and through, through the peak of grief and horror. You must not stop. Only when you go in, and through, and lose yourself to the horror, then and only then may you find your way to the other side, transformed into something rich and strange.

This thing you witnessed, it will come with you too, and you will take its marrow and suck it dry and face the world again and say: I have conquered. And so may you.

We writers, we have a job to do. Our stories can change the world. But only if we look at it first.

“If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth.” Tim O’Brien

No Black Woman, Indeed, No Woman

“No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much.’ Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’… no woman has ever written enough.” -Bell Hooks.

Bellhooks

When I moved to the U.S. deep South in 1990 as a senior in high school, I was stunned by the racism. I had never encountered anything like it.

I was raised air force. I was raised on books. I was raised on Jesus. I was raised on love. I was raised completely oblivious to class and race.

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When I was twelve, my best friend dated my brother’s best friend. She was white, he was black. We were mildly appalled. We giggled about it behind their backs. We speculated how long it would last and what their children would look like if they got married.

We were suspended in that state of horrified fascination that overcomes witnesses to some terrible accident. But not for the reason you’re thinking.

We giggled because we were twelve and they were our friends and none of us had ever dated before and it was weird. It never occurred to us to think of their respective races. They were Colby and Angela, and they were dating. That was plenty to be appalled about.

So imagine me, age 16, entering my senior year at Jefferson Davis High School, Montgomery, Alabama. De facto segregated classrooms. The (almost) all-white choir (one very talented black boy, whose family could afford the required year-long tux rental and whose voice had won him a reluctant place in the Southern Belle teacher’s heart, had made his way in). The white girl whose study group had to borrow someone else’s house to work in because her dad wouldn’t let the black kid in their group come in through the front door.

Summer. That sweet, innocent white girl I got to know when we roomed together on a mission trip. She forgot her shampoo, and was horrified when our other roommate–Lesley, my friend with the missing eye and the short close-cropped African hair, and the laughter that filled the room–offered to loan hers. Summer leaned in to me later, conspiratorially, and asked if she could borrow mine instead. “It’s just, you know,” she said. I didn’t. I didn’t know at all. “Well…” Still not understanding, sorry.

“I don’t want to borrow her shampoo. It’s just…”

It’s just. Oh.

Did you know that by 1995, the Montgomery Country Club still did not allow the children of black employees to swim in their pool, and not because they were employees. The children of white members shouldn’t have to share a pool with [insert ugly term here], of course. They might, I don’t know, leave… something… in the pool…? Contamination, you know.

I consider myself lucky to have been raised color-blind. But it’s not an unmitigated virtue by any means. The down side of color-blindness is embedded in its name: It’s a form of blindness.

In my AP English class that year in Montgomery was a boy named Les. I’ve spoken of him elsewhere. I didn’t like him at first–he fell asleep in class regularly, played practical jokes constantly, and the teacher treated him like some sort of prodigy. Which, it turns out, he was. I liked him better once she explained: He had a thyroid condition that caused him to gain weight and fall asleep uncontrollably, his mother was sick, he worked nights to pay the rent, and he was enrolled in four AP classes in hopes of earning a scholarship that was the only way he would ever go to college. The kid fell asleep during the AP exam and still won top marks. He got his scholarship: To Harvard.

He was black.

For years, I used Les’s story to defend a deeply held belief that race doesn’t matter. Look at Les, I’d say. He was born in a poor black family in the South, and he did fine. Look at Les. Race doesn’t matter, not if you’re willing to work hard and overcome. Race doesn’t matter.

I didn’t understand why black activists had to be so in your face about it. I mean, I know racism sucks, but it’s not like it stops a person from doing the things they want to do. Look at Les. Not everybody can get into Harvard, of course, but if you don’t like the racism of the South, why not move North? Look at Les.

This was the form that my own color-blindness took.

In the time since, both forms of blindness have fallen away, for better and for worse. I notice race. When I meet someone for the first time, it’s one of the first things I notice about them, somewhere between noticing whether they’re smiling (after) and what they’re wearing (before). I am no longer color-blind.

I also recognize racism’s insidious harm to our society. No, it’s not enough that a rare prodigy can break away from the poverty and cultural deprivation that was planted in slavery, grew in segregation, and continues to flourish like an insidious ivy digging its roots into a crumbling brick wall. It’s not enough. I am no longer color-blind.

When two professional black women are apprehended and searched because a pair of shoes was stolen from a shop they were in earlier; when two out of five couples run into legal trouble for their home births and it just happens they’re the black couple and the bi-racial couple; when this commercial starts a fire-storm of hate talk:

When THIS:

When this is what your black friends face every day, well, it’s not enough that a few people are okay, that some break away. None of us is okay so long as some of us are not.

I don’t know what the answers are. I wish I could say, “This social program,” or “This private initiative.” Heck, I wish I could say that I myself have never had a racist thought in my life. I wish I could say that.

The only thing I know for sure is that stories change things. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twelve Years a Slave (the book not the movie) changed slavery. Martin Luther King Jr changed segregation with his speeches. Sojourner Truth and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker and it’s still not enough.

Keep writing. Keep writing. It’s not enough yet, but there’s hope for us. There’s hope:

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