The Only Way Out

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.

Change or Die

fullsizeoutput_1bd6

Evolve or repeat; change or die; don’t look back; inhale the future, exhale the past; be proactive. Do those phases look familiar? I bet they do. We’re inundated with reminders and recommendations about change, improvement, and moving on.

Last week I saw Evolve or Repeat on Facebook and immediately thought of a similar phrase: Change or Die.

It’s been a while, probably fifteen years at least, but I’ll always remember the moment when I first saw the words: Change or Die. I had l seen them before, but this time was different. The title of an article, they were capitalized, and the font was large. The students were taking a test while I read updates on the computer. I glanced up at the class immersed in their work and then began reading.

“Change or Die” referred to businesses that refused to get with the program, so to speak, those who continued to follow traditional ways of attracting and keeping customers. The author of the article advised that unless they became internet savvy and kept up with the changing times, they would soon become defunct. Although I already knew this to be true, there was something about the title that forced me to sit up straight and take notice.

 I walked through a huge Sears store two weeks ago and recalled the days when such stores were bustling with customers in all departments. On this day, I was one of three people walking through the aisles, and truthfully, I was there because I was trying to get a walk in, not to shop. I thought things would surely be better when I got to the tools area, but no. Row after row of Craftsman air movers, garage door openers, hook sets, work benches, pocket planes, saws, tool sets, wrenches, and drills lined the shelves. The two employees stood talking to each other, and I wondered if they did that all day, every day.

I thought of the days when my children delightedly pored over the Sears catalogue choosing Christmas gifts. The huge books were even used as seat elevators when little ones couldn’t reach the dinner table. I’d love to see one of the catalogues today. Who could have foreseen their end? Who could have predicted Amazon? Not I.

I recall when the college where I worked began online instruction. Excited about the possibilities, I jumped on the bandwagon. When some naysayers resisted, one administrator was overheard saying, “This train is leaving the station. Climb aboard or be left behind.” There’s a lot of jumping, leaving, and climbing in this paragraph, but I’m not a good enough writer to write without a cliché or two. Those terms imply action and change.

For the record, the students above were taking the test on their computers, one of my first forays into paperless tests. A younger colleague mentioned that he planned to go paperless with just about everything work-related, and he graciously volunteered to be my mentor. As a retiree, I’m still teaching online classes. There are virtual schools everywhere. Teaching has changed, and if I hadn’t adapted, well, you know.

Changing or dying applies to all areas of life, personal, business, emotional, social, spiritual, physical–everything. Want to share how changing has kept you afloat–or how refusal to change led to stagnation?

Lessons from a Stranger

Today is my granddaughter Olivia’s birthday, a day that reminds me of the juxtaposition of “things,” things like emotions, events, and experiences. I’m thinking of a man I never met who had a profound effect on my thinking. Because of him, I’ll never take my blessings for granted; nor will I ever be insensitive to the feelings of others (or at least that’s my goal).

On that spring morning the other grandparents and I felt excitement, mine bordering on giddiness. We walked and talked and snacked and waited. And then we waited some more. We were allowed in and out of Amanda’s room for part of the day, and then as the big event became more imminent, the medical personnel shooed us out. We adjourned to the huge waiting lobby filled with clusters of sage vinyl couches and found a vacant sitting area. As we made small talk, a feeling of anxious anticipation permeated the atmosphere.

“Dumas said all human wisdom could be summed up in two words, wait and hope,” I quipped. Anxious smiles greeted the remark. We knew the moment was close, and yet there was nothing the four adults could do. It was in the hands of the doctor and Amanda. And God.

Life teemed all around us. At least two groups of expectant parents came for “the tour.” Led by a member of the hospital staff, the excited parents-to-be were given instructions on where everything was and what they could expect on delivery day. The group stopped just short of the double doors that led to the labor and birthing rooms, and we listened as their guide informed them about what went on behind those doors. Securely locked, the doors were sacred portals beyond which no one could pass without permission and a code of some type.

Several medical personnel bustled about with clipboards and pagers, all busily intent on their missions. I watched the scurrying about of doctors, nurses, and orderlies and recalled Annie Dillard’s poignant passage in For the Time Being about an obstetrical ward in a busy city hospital. As Dillard described the activity level, she said there “might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks.” She then asks if we, her readers, should perhaps “remove our shoes, drink potions, and take baths?” Because, Dillard writes, “This is where the people come out.”

Chitchatting about various topics, none of them too serious, we scarcely noticed the quiet arrival of an older man who came to join our group. Truthfully, he didn’t so much join us as he filled an empty seat for a few minutes. Because of the various seating combinations in the waiting area, and we had grown accustomed to sharing our space with an assorted crew of people as the day had progressed. He was just another seat filler, someone with whom we’d share small talk and commiserate about the waiting…or so I thought.

Cap pulled halfway down his forehead, his coal black eyes stared straight ahead. On the frail side, his downcast demeanor made him appear even more shrunken as he sat still and silent on the sage green sofa, his dark face immobile and unreadable. He appeared to be around 60, but frankly, it was hard to determine his age. Serious sorrow, rather than his age, could have been responsible for the deep lines etched beside his mouth and the empty look in his eyes.

The four grandparents-in-waiting continued to talk, and hoping to bring him into our conversation, I tried to establish some eye contact with the newest member of our cluster. My friendly overtures were to no avail, and I could tell from my surreptitious glances at his face that to him we might as well be pieces of furniture. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he dealt with some inner turmoil or heartache. Still and silent, he created a sacred inviolate space around him that no one could enter.

Looking straight ahead, the sad, silent man pulled a brown bag of plain M & M’s from his shirt pocket, and for the entire time he sat amongst us, he slowly and methodically ate the chocolate pieces. He didn’t tilt his head back and jiggle several at a time out of the bag. Nor did he spill a few in one hand and examine the multi-colored morsels before popping them into his mouth. He ate them unhurriedly, one by one, not savoring–merely chewing. Did he even notice their sweetness? Did eating them merely give him something to do, something to momentarily assuage his pain?

After a few moments, I noticed a lone tear streaking down his cheek, and then another and another. From my vantage point, I could see only his right profile, but I’m certain the tears were coursing down both sides of his face. Despite his sorrow, the candy man’s demeanor was one of dignity and restraint. The juxtaposition between our emotions and his couldn’t have been more obvious. Seeing his pain almost made me feel guilty for feeling so much hope and happiness.

What had happened to cause him such distress? Had he lost a wife or a daughter? Had one of the women in his life given birth to a stillborn child? Northside Hospital’s Women Center is a full-care facility that handles just about any women’s issue imaginable. From surgery to seminars, females from 12 to 100 are treated. The area where we sat was right outside of the labor and delivery area, but there were other sets of doors radiating from the waiting area, all leading to some mystery-shrouded ward. Which ward had he come from?

I’d like to say that someone offered him a tissue and that we became shoulders to cry on. But no, that didn’t happen. Subdued by the newcomer’s obvious distress, we grew quieter, and after a few moments we gave up our feeble attempts to continue our earlier lighthearted banter. We all tried to ignore him, not because we didn’t care but rather because we respected him and his anguish. The candy man had built an invisible wall around himself and seemed to be saying, “I’ve got to get myself together before moving forward.” His grief was a private thing, and we all sensed and respected that; we too had experienced punctured hearts.

But that was eight years ago. Today I’m feeling jangled by the memory of a stranger whose sadness continues to haunt me. What is he doing on this May afternoon? Have his tears dried? If we met today, would he talk to me? And if so, what would he say?

I think he’d tell me something that I already knew, that while there is suffering, there is also joy. And that perhaps pain serves to make us more aware of the exquisite sweetness of life. I hope that the candy man’s heartache has eased and that he has joy in his life.

Live, Laugh, Love

image

The beach is a happening place. People of all shapes, sizes, and ages walk past the dunes and let their hair down, and people watchers are guaranteed to see interesting sights, some that that make you smile and others that give you pause for thought.

Here are some things I heard, saw, and smelled within five minutes as I walked along the strand.

  • “Daddy, I caught one, the young boy said, holding up a tiny fish for his father to see. His dad laughed. I grinned.
  • A few steps further brought the smell of cigar smoke wafting my way, and instantly I saw its source—a middle-aged man sat in a beach chair, smoking cigar and fishing. Ah, the life of Riley, I thought.
  • And then there was a grandfather with frizzy gray hair walking along cradling his his sleeping blonde-haired granddaughter. The toddler was leaning against his chest and shoulder as he cradled her in his arms.

I realize the above might not seem that spectacular, but I jotted them down later for one reason: they all lifted my spirits. Love, relaxation, and joie de vivre were common themes of all three scenarios.

As I continued my walk along the beach, I began thinking about my hair and the hassle of coloring my roots every few weeks. Such a bother, I thought and wondered how much longer I would be willing to do it. Within seconds, I spotted a woman who appeared to be about my age or a little younger with no hair at all.

She was playing with grandchildren and talking with her adult children as though she were the happiest person on the beach. And it’s not like she was trying to hide her baldness. On the contrary, she was not even wearing a hat to protect her scalp. She wore large fashionable earrings in her lobes, and sported a lime green cover-up. Her message seemed to be live and love every day!

Embarrassed by my vanity and humbled by her appearance, I walked on. I observed people throwing Frisbees, football, darts, and horseshoes and soon forgot the grandmother. But not for long.

On my return trip I saw her from a distance as she stood in the edge of the water with several little children. The other adults, likely the children’s parents, sat in a semi-circle a few feet away. I looked from them to her and back to them again and locked eyes with one of the young women. She was taking a video of the bald woman in the lime green cover-up  who was laughing with the children in the surf. Mother and daughter? I wondered.

I backed up and walked behind the group rather than between them and the group in the ocean, and as I did, the photographer/video-taper gave me a thumbs-up. Sobered, I walked back to my spot on the beach. That evening, I shared that scene with some family members, reinforcing the fact that people and love and memories are more important than looks, money, and prestige.

“So does that mean you’re going to stop coloring your hair?” someone kidded.

“No, not yet,” I said. “I’m not as far along the path as she is.” They knew what I was trying to say, though. Live, laugh, love.

Six weeks later, I’m thinking of the little boy who caught a minnow, the cigar-smoking fisherman, the toddler-toting grandfather, and the grandmother in lime. Where are they today? Do they have moments when they recollect their moments by the sea and smile? I hope so, and I hope all will find a way  to rekindle the joy they demonstrated that summer day.

I Can Do Hard Things

IMG_5247

Sometimes I read Facebook posts and think, “Been there, done that.” Come on, admit it. So have you. Often this thought occurs when reading about the trials of being a mother/parent/employee. But today I’m thinking of three young women who’ve done things I’ve never done and likely never will.

One of 30-somethings was walking around Habitat with me last week, looking at treasures and talking about life, families, love, and work. We commiserated just a little about no one “here” knowing much about our families and the vast network we are part of elsewhere. It works both ways, of course. No one “back there” knows much about our lives here.

I realize the above is true for every person who’s left his or her place of birth to go out into the wide world. It’s also true for people like me who’ve had the opportunity to live, love, work, and play in other areas and then return home sweet home. In Myrtle Beach, friends at work and church saw me as Jayne the friend, wife, mother, and teacher but rarely as Jayne the daughter and sister. When family members came to visit, they were perceived as “visitors.” In Camden, many acquaintances see me as I am now, without the people and roles that I formerly held.

Back to my young friend’s visit to Habitat. I learned from our chat that her first child was born by C-section, a fairly common practice within the past twenty years or so. But here’s something that’s not so common. Within two weeks after her baby’s birth, she was driving a tractor, stopping now and then to nurse the baby. I was amazed to hear this. This feat, so casually mentioned and evidently easily performed, stopped me in my tracks.

Have not been there, have not done that. I’ve had babies but never driven a tractor, much less a newborn who needed nursing.

Another young woman of whom I’m thinking drove from South Carolina to California with her five children for an Easter visit with family and friends. She’d said goodbye to them a few months ago when she and her husband and children moved to the Palmetto State and was hankering to see their faces.

Again, I was amazed. If the weather looks threatening or messy (like Monday), there’s no way I’m going to drive to Columbia, much less across the country. The young mother mentioned above drove 6,000 miles across nine states—with five children, one of them a toddler. Just thinking about bathroom breaks with kids makes me kinda crazy.

Have not been there, have not done that. I’ve driven alone with young children but no further than 150 miles.

Without going into specifics, today I spent about three minutes with a beautiful young woman who’s been stuck in Camden for four days. And yes, stuck is the appropriate word for her plight. Between destinations, she’s waiting on money to be wired for a bus ticket out of Dodge, She had a black eye, black and blue and painful to look at. No wonder she was so antsy and apprehensive. I’d be looking over my shoulder, too.

I leaned forward and told her things would work out. She murmured something likeIt’s got to.” I could have piled on some platitudes, but I refrained. Later, I saw her pacing back and forth, back and forth. She’s in the middle, her old life behind and the new one ahead and vague.

Have not been there, have not done that. In the middle, yes. Abused and afraid, no.

I’m not saying I’m a wimp or a softie–although I could be both and more. I’m just saying that my admiration for the young generation shot up during the past several days. All three of these people impressed me with their courage, confidence, and choices. And they reminded me of my grandchildren who’ve already been taught, “I can do hard things.” Now if I could follow their example….

What about you? Have you witnessed examples of people doing hard things? Have you done some hard things?

Robbed at Gunpoint

IMG_5240

True story, a frightening one. The event happened last summer and continues to haunt me. This afternoon, I came across what I wrote about it at the time. I had no answers then, and I don’t have any now—just a conviction that I (we?) need to consider social injustice of all kinds.

“Last week I dined with two old and dear friends, one of whom had been robbed at gunpoint the night before. She and her family were watching television when she heard the unmistakable click of the back door. Was it the wind? Curious but not alarmed, she turned to look, and four masked men bounded into the room.

“All had guns, and each intruder leveled a gun at the head of one of the four family members. Four people who’d been enjoying their time together at day’s end moments before were now held captive by the invaders. Pleasure turned to terror.

“As my friend said, ‘It was surreal. I felt like I was in a dream.’

“The young men wanted money, not silver or jewelry or electronic devices. Sadly for them, the family had less than $50 in cash between them. After dumping the contents of the two women’s purses, the armed robbers (is there a better term?) retrieved at least one debit card and asked for the PIN. No fool, my friend readily gave it to him, and two of men left for an ATM machine with this promise/threat: ‘If this doesn’t work, we’re coming back to shoot all of you in the head.’

“Held hostage in what had been presumed to be a safe haven, the family felt powerless. Cell phones had been confiscated and doused with water by this time, making contact with the outside world impossible. Although they were confident that the PIN would work, the family still felt frightened, especially as they thought of the innocent two-year-old sleeping in a nearby bedroom.

“Quick thinking on the part of the young adults, the couple’s daughter and her husband, prevailed as the two began distracting the men with questions. My friend’s husband gave an award-worthy performance of faking a heart attack that must have unsettled the two remaining intruders because they fled before their partners returned, taking house keys and the home owner’s car.

“At least one phone still worked, and someone called 911. Police officers arrived in a matter of minutes. Three of the four men, all under twenty-one, had been apprehended by the time of our luncheon the next day. By that afternoon, the fourth was also in custody.

“How could something like this happen in such a seemingly safe neighborhood with pretty lawns and tree-lined streets?

“Another friend, Maria, and I absorbed this story as we dined on salmon atop spinach lunches and a special sauce. Maria began talking about a recent anniversary trip and delighted us with stories about her adventures, including a ride in hot air balloon. We chatted briefly about two other friends, one in Alaska and one who just returned from a trip to England and Scotland.

“Life was good for them—and for us too. Didn’t we deserve things? Trips and opportunities and salmon atop spinach? Doesn’t everyone? The conversation reminded me of stories I’ve read about people in the most adverse of situations who somehow do more than merely soldier on. They laugh, joke, eat, make love, and sing even as bombs explode around them.

“My friends and I discussed local politics, the juicy sweetness of peaches, and travel adventures including hikes, sailboat rides, and plantation tours. Admitting she had been a tad nervous about riding in a hot air balloon, Maria said, “There was that one that bumped into a barn, you know. It can be dangerous.”

“No matter what exciting, trivial, or funny story came up in conversation, the previous night’s incident was there, hovering over and around and above us. Our dialogue always came back to it.

“When asked if the thieves were black, my friend hesitated a moment before nodding yes. There was sadness in that nod, and knowing. Knowing developed from decades of working with college students and from reading and observing life with a clear eye. A woman of deep faith, she was likely thinking, ‘All are precious in His sight’ even as she relived the terror of the night before.

“Horrific things have always gone on, just not this close to home. I saw The Independent State of Jones last week and was sickened by the work of the Klan. I can still feel my involuntarily uptake in breath when Mr. Moses realized that three white men were following him with taunts and name-calling. His murder was cruel and merciless.

“I recently reread Elie Wiesel’s Night and wondered how the world could stand by and watch. Roosevelt knew about the Holocaust, and I’ve often wondered about his silence. Not a political scientist by any stretch of the imagination, there are many things I don’t understand. We were less of a global community then. Now we send troops to places in the world I’d never heard of until now, but then, six and a half million Jews and other “undesirables” were killed while the world turned a blind eye.”

Nearly a year has passed since the summer night intrusion and the next day’s luncheon. I still have no answers, just a conviction that all lives matter.

 

Elvis, Martin, and Abraham

Ever since our trip to Illinois last week, I’ve been thinking of three men who made an indelible mark on our country: Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. While traveling, we visited sites that filled our minds with facts and an increased sense of appreciation for their gifts and perseverance.

We arrived in Tupelo, MS just minutes after the museum chronicling events in Elvis’ life closed. No problem. The grounds were lovely, and we were able to take as much time as we wanted to see the small two-room house where he was born, the church where he spent many Sundays as a child, a huge statue of Elvis as a teenager, and a brick inlaid time line of major life events. It was all fascinating, but I think what captured my attention and awe was just how humble Elvis’ beginnings were.

Elvis’ music touched people all over the world. From the Graceland tour in Memphis, I learned that his Hawaii concert was viewed by one and a half billion people in forty countries. So no, he didn’t fight for human rights or lead a country divided by war, but his impact on others remains. I’ll always remember, “Another little baby boy was born in the ghetto, and his mother cried.” Powerful song.

While I got a real sense of Elvis’s personality and heart while in Graceland, I felt more sad than glad there. He worked hard, played hard, loved hard, and died far too young—right there in Graceland.

While in Memphis, we visited the Civil Rights Museum, an awe-inspiring collection of photographs, artifacts, movies, news clips, and dioramas that teach and inspire at the same time. The main part of the collection takes part in the Lorraine Motel, the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by a single bullet. There’s a wreath on the railing where he was shot. Inside, the rooms where he and some companions stayed are preserved as they were on that day in April 1968. He was an extraordinary man on a mission to improve life for African Americans and all people who were marginalized.

I know he was no saint. But still, when I ponder his role in the Civil Rights Movement and remember King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I can think of no one who did more to move equal rights for all forward.

And finally, there’s Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. As all school children know, Honest Abe, also known as the Great Emancipator, spent much of his young life in a log cabin in Kentucky. He mother died when he was nine years old, and his father remarried about a year later. He was basically a self-taught man whose education is estimated to be a total of eighteen months. He worked at a variety of occupations, including rail-splitter and shopkeeper, before entering political life when he was elected to the Illinois state legislature in 1834.

In Springfield, the facts from history books came to life as we toured Lincoln’s home, ambled through his community, visited the Lincoln Museum, and walked through the old Capitol. In the museum, I learned more of his angst about the war, the slavery issue, and the nation’s economy. I began to see him as a “real” figure, one who loved his country, his wife, and his four boys. Three of the four sons died before reaching adulthood.

 Assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln also died too young. He rose above all manner of issues to become one of the most popular and respected leaders of the 19th century.

 Elvis and Abe came from lowly beginnings; one became a performer who charmed and entertained people all over the globe, and the other became grew up to hold the highest office in the land. Although his family wasn’t poor, MLK had his challenges and struggles too. Regardless of their inauspicious beginnings, all three men seemed destined for greatness.

Seeing evidences of their lives up close and personal makes me ponder for the hundredth time (or more): What makes some people rise above obstacles to fulfill their potential and become instruments of progress, fairness, civility, and yes, entertainment while others do not?