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.

Connections

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. 

It’s Complicated

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.

Shadow Sides

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.

Go Take a Hike

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.

There’s another Volksmarch in late September…. 

Wounded Knee

As mentioned in the previous post, traveling Sage Creek Road was unsettling. Here we were, 21st century senior citizens who’d been around the block more than a few times, and yet we felt jangly and jittery. I thought of the Native Americans who’d persevered without air-conditioned cars, cell phones, tasty snacks, or GPS systems. We were on a dirt road that would end in a matter of miles and minutes, rain or no rain feeling the shadow of unease and anxiety—stress.

At the end of Sage Creek Road, we turned right, eventually arriving in Scenic. After getting the “straight down that road” instruction, we began the long, desolate road that eventually took us to Wounded Knee. There were few people in sight, just buildings, including a school and some small homes, and acres and acres of land on all directions. Cows and horses abounded, and we discussed what cows did in the rain, snow, sleet, or relentless heat. We were mainly quiet, though, daunted by our surroundings, barren and beautiful at the same time.

After forty-five minutes, give or take, we saw three Native Americans sitting behind a sign on the side of the road. Large and red, the sign had “Wounded Knee” written on it, but since that wasn’t the sight we were expecting, we traveled past, totally missing the church and cemetery across the road. We turned left at a crossroads, rode on about six or seven miles, and finally realized we were in the middle of nowhere. We pulled over to consult the GPS together, confirming our confusion. Tired and aggravated, my husband turned around and retraced our route, vowing that if he didn’t see something soon, we were going back to Rapid City. He was officially done.

“Come on, Hon. We’ve come so far, and it’s stupid to go all the back to Rapid City without visiting Wounded Knee,” I said. And after a moment, “This is something I really want to do to honor my mother. You know how she felt about Native Americans, especially after reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” That did it. Like my mother, he too has a special affinity for America’s first inhabitants.

We soon came to the fork in the road where the three Native Americans were seated and turned in. I got out to ask about our whereabouts, feeling every atom of my appearance and background, an older white female fortunate enough to be gadding about doing the tourist thing on a Friday afternoon. A little twinge of guilt seized my conscience, but once I was out of the car and walking toward them, there was no turning back.

One of the men, Emerald, pointed across the road to a cemetery and church on a hill and began telling the story of the massacre that had occurred December 29, 1890. Estimates of the dead vary depending on the sources one reads, but somewhere between 175 and 300 Lakota men, women, and children were slaughtered by the American Cavalry. A blizzard made burying the bodies impossible until days later. At that time, the Cavalry hired civilians to dig a trench to bury the massacred Lakota in a mass grave.

We were incredulous. Somehow, we’d missed this story in history classes. We’d heard of the Battle of Wounded Knee, yes, but we didn’t know many American Indian groups refer to it as the Wounded Knee Massacre. Calling this slaughter a battle doesn’t prettify what happened, and I can well understand the difference in terminology.

My husband and I walked across the road to the cemetery, stopping first at the fenced in area surrounding the mass grave. Ribbons, shawls, feathers, and other mementos were tied to the fence. Gone but not forgotten crossed my mind. As we strolled through the cemetery, every grave was decorated in some fashion, and I got a sense of what the deceased were like and how much they’re still loved and remembered.

The cemetery was peaceful, and I was overcome with a sense of history as I listened to the rustling sounds of the trees, noted the views surrounding the hill, and read the tombstones. Lost Bird’s grave especially touched my heart. I sauntered over to the church and looked down the hill at the little community of Wounded Knee, glad to know that descendants of the massacre still lived.

Well, Mama, here I am, I thought as we returned to the car, the hillside with its history and inhabitants behind us. I might have gotten a little choked up.

From Interior to Pine Ridge

 

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The stark beauty of the Badlands of South Dakota rendered both of us speechless—again. We’d visited the area last year and were so entranced with it that we knew we’d return if the chance came up. It did 

While browsing Facebook a few months ago, I saw the announcement of an event that was to take place at the Crazy Horse Memorial near Rapid City the first weekend of June, and from a previous tour of some National Parks, I knew visiting both sites was doable. It didn’t take much encouragement for my husband to agree. “This time,” he said, “I just hope it’s not raining.” And after a few moments, “And maybe we’ll see some bison this go-round.”

Yes! I thought. It’s gonna happen.

Nine days ago, we whizzed right through Interior, South Dakota and headed straight to the Cedar Pass Lodge for a hearty breakfast. I opted for a kids’ meal and added a pancake with ears. After all, we were planning to hike three trails, and I wanted to be fortified with vitamins and fuel. Although I was hungry, I couldn’t eat but half the pancake. That’s how generous the servings are. After breakfast, we ambled over to the gift shop where the hubs purchased a couple of tee-shirts and a hat.

After a picture taking frenzy of taking photographs of other happy campers and them taking pictures of us outside of the Ben Reifel Visitors’ Center next door, we knew it was time to start hiking. Ummm. Hiking might not be the correct word. Walking is probably better. Along all three trails we stopped to examine plants and rocks and to take photographs of the drop-dead gorgeous nature all around us. While all the trails were relatively short, easy, and awe-inspiring, the last one was probably our favorite. We felt like we were on the moon—no plants, just craters and buttes and spires.

After spending several hours at the Badlands, first called “mako sika” by the Lakota, we agreed that we’d have just enough time to squeeze in a quick visit to Wounded Knee. How could we come this far and not make the effort? We consulted with a ranger at the Visitors’ Center who advised us to take the dirt road through Sage Creek leaving the park to get us closer to Wounded Knee. Though dirt, Sage Creek Road was smooth and well-maintained. The animals, especially the small prairie dogs, were an added bonus.

About five miles down this twenty-six mile, less-traveled road, we noticed rain clouds in the distance. They were menacing, and we tried to ignore them. What if we got stuck in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone coverage? But then the clouds shifted, and we inched along, keeping our fingers crossed that we’d be spared a deluge. Soon there were more miles behind us than before us, and we began to breathe a little easier. Sage Creek ended, and there was an asphalt road before us. We turned right, and soon we were in Scenic, South Dakota, not exactly a garden spot but a unique and unforgettable one for sure.

We saw what looked like a store, and I was appointed to go inside and ask for directions. A woman at the counter pointed left and said, “Just keep going straight, and you’ll run right into it.”

“Really? It’s that easy?”

“Yes,” she said with so much assurance that I walked confidently to the car, pointed straight, and said, “That way.”

On and on and on we went through Pine Ridge Reservation, the eighth largest in the nation…the poorest too. Cows, horses, and prairie dogs dotted the fields and wide open spaces along the way, quite a difference from the rugged and rocky terrain of the Badlands. Occasionally, a home or community building came into view, and in a least one area, Porcupine, we saw people and buildings.

Turns out Wounded Knee wasn’t exactly right at the end of that road, but that’s a story for another day. The experience deserves its own post.