I’ve seen grief up close and personal. Like most people, I’ve experienced it, too. It’s heavy, and although there are times a person feels “fine,” something can come out of the blue and conjure up those dark feelings. Where can a person turn for peace?
Yesterday morning before attending a visitation for a church member, I read a chapter in Good Book by David Plotz, a random reading choice. Or was it? It just so happened that I read the author’s commentary on King David’s behavior after the death of his infant son. Before the baby died, David “weeps, fasts, and pleads with God to spare the child.” After the boy dies, David “prays, then returns home, and promptly sits down for a big meal, his first in a week.”
On the surface, David’s behavior seems callous. His feelings seemingly have taken a 180-degree turn. But when his servants ask how he could now be eating so heartily (my word) after the weeping and fasting of the week before, David responds with conviction and certainty that fasting will not bring the boy back. While the child lived, the king had hope that fasting, weeping, and pleading might persuade God to spare the little one’s life.
“But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” 2 Samuel 12:23
I’m holding on to that thought.
Is it coincidental that I came across that forgotten situation an hour before seeing grief up close and personal? I don’t know. I was glad to be able to share it with my friend. No matter how much weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, pleading, or railing against the powers that be, nothing can bring back our lost loves. But we can go to them.
P.S. No stranger to grief, my husband lost one of his sons six years ago, and I often say something like, “Every day you live brings you closer to the time you’ll see him again.” I think that thought comforts him.
I have thought of that Hefty trash bag every day throughout the Christmas season and feel guilt and shame about the excess most enjoy, myself included. Does that stop me from going headlong into the gift buying and giving during Christmas?
Since I can’t seem to put this memory and the feelings it conjures up to rest, I’m taking a few moments to write about it. Maybe I’ll get some resolution. Maybe not.
Here’s the story. Years ago, I wanted to mix things up a bit in my Human Growth and Development online class. While there was nothing wrong with the written assignments, they got to be, well, boring after a while. So I got the bright idea of having the students write a semester long document with the overall theme of Life’s a Journey. My plan was that they’d start with prenatal life and the variables that went into making them who they were, the ingredients that influenced their journey…like inheriting musical proclivities or athletic prowess; physical attributes went into the mix, too. This blog isn’t going to be long enough to go into the multiple combinations that affect our physical appearance, but you know what I’m talking about. Are you blue-eyed in a brown-eyed world? Tall when everyone else is average (whatever that is)?
But let’s move forward. In childhood, what was the home like? Were both parents present? Did the family attend church? Was there enough money for the basics? Did the person live in an apartment, a luxurious home, a shelter? And where was this residence—country, city, mountains, seaside?
I wanted them to see how where they’d already been on their journey could affect where they were at that moment and all the moments in the future. Many students wrote about picking up passengers along the way, including spouses and children, and I recall being impressed by the creativity of that. Sometimes their journeys were bumpy and filled with potholes, and other times it seemed that they whizzed down smooth roads with nary a curve or missed exit.
As we neared the end of the semester, I opened the last of the documents, and things were going along swimmingly until I read the final installation by a young woman who wrote of an unforgettable Christmas. Her parents had been fighting, and there wasn’t much money for gifts, but still, she was hopeful. They had a tree after all, and her mom had cookies set out for Santa.
But the next morning is one that would be forever etched in her memory. She and her mother and little sister woke up in a women’s shelter with all their worldly possessions shoved into a black Hefty trash bag. Her mother, puffy faced and red eyed, was barely holding it together. I can’t remember the details of the story; I might have deliberately suppressed them. I just know there had been a horrible scene, one so haunting that the young woman writing about it not only recalled the trauma decades later but also one that gave her resolve to never, never, never keep company with anyone who drank.
Like I said, I read this document decades ago, and yet it still disturbs me. I think of that heartbroken, scared little girl awakening in a shelter on Christmas morning and hope her life has done nothing but soar through the years. I remember her story and feel compassion and sadness for all the little children like her, those who have crummy parents and/or no gifts beneath the tree.
I have thought of that Hefty trash bag every day throughout the Christmas season and feel guilt and shame about the excess most enjoy, myself included. Does that stop me from going headlong into the gift buying and giving during Christmas? No. I’m just as likely as others to leap into the commercialism of the season. At the same time, this year on the first day of 2020, I’m resolving to become more aware of the needs of others, especially children, and to do something about them.
The only way out is through. I’ve been familiar with that truism for so long that it almost always springs to mind when I learn of someone who’s going through a difficult time. Whether physical, emotional, social, or spiritual, people just want to be “done.” They want the pain, uneasiness, anxiety, heartache, trauma, or ____________ to end. But it’s not that easy. Like Frost says, “I can see no way out but through.”
And you have to get through. That’s where the good stuff is—the light, the victory, the prize, the A, the blue ribbon, the accomplishment, the baby, the increased confidence.
Last week we went on a triple date to see Midway. Afterwards we went to Top Dawg at Sandhills to discuss the movie over a late lunch. I kept thinking about a scene that had impressed me and tentatively mentioned it to the five at the table, tentatively because I thought they might think it was sappy or sentimental.
Dick Best, a dive bomber, is leaving for Midway and having a conversation with his gunner who is scared stiff of what might lie ahead. Best seems annoyed with the young man and heads toward the exit. But then he stops, turns around, and speaks his truth. He tells the gunner that he can stay right there on the ship if he wants to, but that later he’ll remember the moment when he decided to let his fear prevent him from fulfilling part of his destiny. He’ll remember that while others were fighting for their country, he was sitting below deck nursing his dread and succumbing to panic.
Those weren’t exactly Best’s words, but that’s the gist of his remarks. His gunner suits up. The following scenes are traumatic and terrifying. And yet, what could the men do? The only way out was through.
Everyone in the booth at Top Dawg agreed that the scene taught a powerful lesson. One of the men went so far as to say that was one of the most important things for all people to consider when they think of quitting, turning away, giving up, or taking the path of least resistance. Although the scene portraying the conversation between Best and his gunner took less a minute, it made me realize that a person’s life could be turned around by hearing the right words from the right person at the right time.
I’ll never fly a bombing mission…too old—and a fraidy cat to boot. But like everyone reading this, I’ve realized the truth of The only way out is through many times.
One incident took place early one August morning when I was in labor with my first child. The pains became increasingly unpleasant (understatement) and closer together, and I turned toward my husband and said, “I don’t think I can do this any longer.” It’s been decades, but as well as I can recall, he didn’t say anything, just gave me a helpless look. I mean really, what could he or anyone else in the room say? I was in it for the duration. There was no backing out. The only way out was through.
My first beautiful daughter was born about four hours later–a miracle, a treasure, a delight well worth any discomfort.
When younger, my brothers and I participated in a few marathons and half-marathons. In fact, the baby mentioned in the above paragraph signed up for a Team in Training Marathon for the Leukemia Society. It was to take place in Alaska on June 21, and it sounded like a fun thing to do. I registered. So did about four dozen other people from the Myrtle Beach area. We went to motivational lectures, walked/jogged/ran with our would-be marathoners, and had yard sales and other fundraisers to collect the $3,200 (each) to participate. The fee paid for airfare to and from Anchorage and two-night accommodations, and the rest went toward leukemia research.
There were times, especially when jogging along what seemed to be endless miles of Army tank trails, when I felt like quitting. But where would I go? The Red Cross was always nearby to whisk weary or wounded people to the end for medical help. But sheesh, how could I embarrass myself like that? The only way out was through.
Even now, nearly twenty-five years later, I can still recall a small clearing near a bridge where water and fresh bread were being distributed. I’ve never tasted water so fresh nor bread so satisfying. Nor have I forgotten the sounds of cheering as we crossed the finish line in a high school parking lot six hours after my first step.
This blog has gone on far too long. It’s your turn to share an instance of the only way out is through. I like success stories, but stories in which people give up are welcome, too.
Lately I’ve been walking down Memory Lane more often, and I’m fairly sure it’s because I’m older and have more to remember and more time to reflect. I’m still busy, but it’s not the kind of frenetic coming and going and getting and spending that accompanies young and middle adulthood. Getting an education, raising a family, developing a career, and adjusting to all sorts of changes can be challenging—rewarding, yes, but challenging too.
A week or so ago, I got together with some friends I’ve known since I was a child (two of them) and teenager (the other two). We talked about some of the challenges of aging, including health issues, hearing loss, and cataract surgery. That wasn’t the hottest topic, though. The most popular and recurring theme of the day and evening centered on connections and relationships, the ties that bind and those that sometimes come unraveled.
As friends who’d known one another for decades, those lasting bonds surfaced many times as we shared memories and inquired about those not present. Some of those absent from our circle at the table were “in heaven,” others were living with illness or misfortune, and still others were probably right in their own comfy homes planning trips, knitting fashionable ponchos, or watching Netflix. And it wasn’t just our contemporaries who came up in our conversations. Families, immediate and extended, came up, too. A couple of the “girls” are still fortunate enough to have their mothers, but no one’s father still walks the earth these days.
As we waited for our checks at J Peters that evening, I recalled some impressions of a brunch in Rapid City, South Dakota in June. The hubs and I breakfasted one morning Tally’s Silver Spoon, and the atmosphere, service, and food were all phenomenal. As we neared the eatery, we saw several people dining outside, and an infant was sitting in a man’s lap. The baby had that terrified “Where in the world am I?” look, and it occurred to me that both the little one and his parents were fortunate. There he was securely sheltered in the crook of his dad’s arm sitting at a table among family members on a bright June morning in Rapid City, SD. Everyone was laughing and talking. They were jolly.
Once inside, we were seated at a table affording a close up and personal look at the family. The only other child I saw was a little girl who looked to be about four years old. Done with her chocolate chip pancakes, she walked haltingly over to some rocks in a corner decorative area. Her mother (or aunt or family friend) joined her. Sweet. The group was spread out across a couple or three round tables, and as everyone split up to go their separate ways, a lot of hugging and fond farewells were exchanged.
I felt happy watching them—and a little melancholy too. I told my husband we’d been lucky our whole lives, too. Even though we didn’t dine at outside eateries as babies or small children, we’d always been in the midst of family…as babies, children, young adults, older adults, and so forth. We had played and are still playing the roles of everyone in that scene. Coming together like those gathered that Saturday can fortify people and imbue them with confidence and strength and love as they separate and go back to their other lives, the ones shared amidst another group of people.
As one of my friends and I walked out to our cars that evening in Murrells Inlet, we chatted a minute (really just a minute) about how our lives had changed since we had met as children.
“We’ve played so many roles,” I said.
“Yeah, and we were babies, too.” she replied.
Yes, we were. It’s funny how we arrive on the planet as tiny, helpless beings who develop and mature and survive and thrive—or not. But regardless of our choices and circumstances, our lives are enriched (if we’re lucky) by connections and love.
Without going into the whole tabula rasa thing, I’m simply going to share something I heard on a podcast a few weeks ago. It wasn’t anything I didn’t already know because I did. But what arrested my attention and kept me listening were these words by the presenter: You know what you know because you’ve been told that by someone.
That someone might have been a parent or a teacher or a friend. Still, until you heard those words, you didn’t know that fact, i.e., the earth is round. As you matured and began to read, words from a book told you things you didn’t know before. Before long, you realized you were part of a culture, and although you knew there were different cultures and peoples and traditions and languages in the world, yours was the most awesome. Maybe you were a bit ethnocentric. I was. Probably still am.
As a child, I learned to speak English. In my baby book, my mother wrote, “Jane now says so many new words each day that I can’t write them all down.” I’m confident that the words were dog (not chien), brother (not frere), and house (not casa). My parents and extended family spoke only English, not French or Spanish, so that’s what I learned. A simple example, and yet you get the point. Language is a huge and unifying part of one’s culture.
We went to a Baptist church where I was taught that “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.” My young friends and I sang those words with fervor, and yet none of us really knew any other children except the ones who were just like us. Until I went to college, I didn’t have classes with any Black or Asian Americans.
In grades 1-12, my friends and siblings learned quite a lot about the traditions and history of our country. George Washington was our first president and a brilliant military leader; Thomas Jefferson was a great statesman, the third president, and primary author of the constitution; Native Americans (called Indians back in the day) were savages who lay in wait to attack Europeans as they tried to “make it” in this land.
I’m not saying the above statements are bogus. I’m saying the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Washington was indeed America’s first president, Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces, and slave owner of about 300 slaves (give or take). Jefferson once called slavery an Assemblage of Horrors, yet he owned around 175 servants. And then there’s Sally Hemings. Native Americans lived here long before the Europeans arrived, but now ….
I bought it all—hook, line, and sinker and was an adult before I realized how complicated things were. My awakening was slow. First, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His “I Have a Dream” speech can still move me to tears. Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The world was changing, and while I saw that as a good thing, it was a little discomforting. I read Ramona and learned more about the treatment of Mexicans and Natives, visited Juneau and stumbled upon “The Empty Chair” Memorial, toured Mount Rushmore and began to understand why the Native Americans were a bit bothered by the faces of white men carved into what they (the Natives) viewed as a sacred mountain. During the last several years, we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many Plains states, and some of things I saw and heard and read will disturb me for the rest of my life.
One night I watched an interview with Susan Sarandon and Jimmy Fallon in which she said, quite calmly and assuredly, that America was founded on the “genocide of Native Americans and on the backs of slaves.” I gulped. In that moment, I knew she was right and that she had known this truth for a long, long time.
I just started reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s funny and clever and smart (like he is). At the end of the introduction to apartheid, he says: “….but the general thrust of it should be easy enough for any American to understand. In America you had he forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of these things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”
I’m not dissing my teachers, preachers, parents, friends, books, or television for the things I blithely accepted as fact. I’m saying that being open to learning the “also truths” has been eye opening. It’s complicated.
I’m woke. I finally get it. And my awakening came during church yesterday morning.
The speakers gave talks on topics such as love, forgiveness, and following Christ. While sitting there, a character in a short story I’d just read came to mind—Mr. Stovall, a deacon in the Baptist church. In the story, Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun,” a black woman asks him when he’s going to pay her: “When you going to pay me, white man? When you going to pay me, white man? It’s been three times now since you paid me a cent—” Mr. Stovall knocked her down and kicked out her teeth.
Nancy spent the night in jail, attempting suicide toward morning. When the jailer found her, “Nancy was hanging from the window, stark naked, her belly already swelling out a little like a little balloon.” After he revived her, the jailer “beat her, whipped her.”
Barely into the story, I knew
that Nancy is black,
that people (including Mr. Stovall, the Baptist deacon) use and abuse her,
that she’s expecting a baby,
and that there’s something sketchy about this pregnancy.
Who’s the father? We soon learn that it’s not her husband, a man who says white men are allowed to come freely into his house but that he can’t go into theirs. Jesus, the husband, is angry and wants to kill Nancy—or so she believes. Is it because of her behavior or because of his own powerlessness over the abominable situation that exists?
Does Jesus know the father is white? Yes, and so does the reader. The fact that Faulkner makes a point of the interaction between Nancy and Mr. Stovall implies that Stovall is the father—or that it’s someone like him, some respectable white Christian.
But wait. Aren’t Christians supposed to love one another regardless of race or creed? Yes. everyone knows that. And yet. And yet here’s the poor, scared, powerless, penniless black woman carrying a white man’s baby (against her will) who gets her teeth knocked out by a white man who’s quite possibly the baby’s father. And he’s parading around as a Christian. And her husband plans to kill her because of her situation.
Some people see Christians as hypocritical and scary. Honestly, I can understand the hypocritical aspect a little. A bit hypocritical myself, I struggle with always being fair, loving, kind, generous, and forgiving. At the same time, I have to hold back when I hear a Christian dissing someone of another race or religion when they themselves are often cruel, bigoted, and judgmental. I have friends who dislike Mexicans, Muslims, Indians, Hindus, Syrians, Jews, transgender, gay, and any and everybody else whom they either (1) don’t understand or (2) feel superior to.
My husband has a friend who used to say, “That ain’t right, Bo. That ain’t right.” Although his comments weren’t related to Mr. Stovall types of behavior, they align with the current hate mongering. Being okay with white supremacy and condoning racism, sexism, and all other isms that demonstrate hate, not love, just “ain’t right.”
So here’s my epiphany from yesterday. Neither Mr. Stovall nor thousands like him have personal insight into their shadow sides. They can’t see themselves with a clear eye. And nor can I. Fortunately, I have people in my life who can and do try to help me see the light. I say “try” because I, like you, am a work in progress.
There was no playing of the National Anthem that morning. No start gun either. As long as participants were on the 6.2 mile Volksmarch course by one o’clock in the afternoon, they would be allowed to participate—quite a change from previous events at which participants gathered in the predawn darkness for events (walks and runs) scheduled for 6:30 a.m. or thereabouts.
Arriving at the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota around ten o’clock, we parked in a huge parking lot with hundreds of other vehicles and boarded a bus that took us to the registration area. The entertaining driver turned to the passengers and delivered a special message from the Volksmarch officials: “Go take a hike.”
Registration was easy, peasy—name, address, phone number. After completing the forms, we walked over to a long table where several people stood ready to take our entry fee: three cans of food from each person. After plunking down the cans of soup, black beans, and corn, we walked to the other side of the registration table and started walking.
I immediately fell under the spell of the woods. So did my husband. The sun dappled path, the birdsong, and the sight and sound of the walkers in front of me set a magical tone for the entire walk. Despite there being hundreds of people around me at any given time, I could still hear occasional rustlings in and below the trees. The aspens were a spectacular sight—tall and strait with feathery green leaves and white bark. The terrain was rough in some places—and hilly and slippery. We were glad we’d worn sensible shoes.
Our co-walkers were of all shapes and sizes and ages. Some were in family groups. Others, especially those intent on speed, were more likely to go it alone. I wish I could say there were several racial and ethnic groups represented, but that wasn’t the case. I saw only two Native Americans, a father and son, during our two hours on the course; the rest were overwhelmingly Caucasian…alas. I later learned that there’s still a lot of controversy about the monument. Some Lakota consider it a pollution to the landscape.
My understanding is that some Native Americans were disturbed by the carvings of four white men at Mount Rushmore. Henry Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota chief, approached Korczak Ziolkowski about creating a Crazy Horse sculpture. “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too,” Henry Standing Bear said. Work on the sculpture began in 1948 and continues today. On June 1, we met one of Ziolkowski’s sons who was eight years old when his father began the project.
In past walking and running events, an unspoken protocol dictated that participants move to the side if tired—and stay in motion and out of the way of others. The June 1 event was different. People stopped to take pics, climb on rocks, recline on rocks, eat snacks, compare notes, drink water, and laugh and talk. No pressure except to relish the time spent on the beautiful wooded trails leading to and from Chief Crazy Horse’s monument. And speaking of the monument, Crazy Horse’s head is eighty-seven feet high. Pretty impressive.
As I reflect on the Volksmarch, I think of the beauty of the area (mentioned above) and the people who made the journey with us.
Some seemed eager to share their experiences of past Volksmarches and vowed that it was addictive. Hmmm. We’ll see.
Just about everyone was in high spirits. Once I leaned over to take a reflective photograph in a roadside creek loud with chirping frogs, and a man wearing a red shirt and shorts and sporting a long gray ponytail said, “Watch out for that snake!” as he walked by, laughing as I jumped.
We saw a man taking photo of four women, everyone laughing and talking. I volunteered to take a picture of all of them, and he told me that was his harem. Someone told him to get in the photo since it was after all his birthday. Then someone from the group took a photo of us. It’s my fav from the day.
Once we reached the top of the memorial and looked Crazy Horse in the eye, I looked around at the others who’d made the trek with us, and though we’d likely never meet again, we shared some shining moments that morning. The struggle was real but rewarding, too. The people, including Crazy Horse, made the experience awesome.