Monday, March 19, 2012

The Only Way Out is Through

Sometimes bad things happen:
People we love get sick and die; people break the promises they’ve made to us; our dreams get deferred, and all too often people who we trust betray us.
          When we are going through these things- in the midst of our despair- the first, probably most natural reaction , is to flail. To kick our legs about wildly and to scream. To try desperately to escape the agony which surely feels like it will be the death of us.
During these times we panic and don’t take a true assessment of the situation. We go into full survival mode.
         When I was a small child, my mother and I were at a wedding reception at the clubhouse of an apartment complex in Indianapolis . The other kids and I had grown bored so we decided to go outside and play by the pool. Since some of my cousins were teenagers the adults didn’t hesitate to let us smaller kids tag along as long as the big kids promised to watch us.
         A group of us were running around and one of my male cousins, who was a year younger than me but much larger, thought it would be funny to push me into the pool. Either he assumed that I knew how to swim or in his immaturity he just didn’t think it all the way through.
         People say that when you’re dying your life flashes before your eyes. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that everything seemed to be happening in slow motion  and even to this day I can vividly remember the details of those moments as if they were time-lapse photographs showing each action  moment by moment.
What I remember most vividly was thrashing about desperately in a vain attempt to get my head above water. My legs, though long, were not quite long enough to reach the bottom of the pool and I kicked frantically hoping that I would be able stand on my tiptoes and crane my head up toward the blue sky. I had never thought about the air I breathed before, but as I gasped for it, I realized how beautiful it was and how much I had taken it for granted.
         When one of the older cousins realized what was going on, he threw in a life preserver, but in my panic I accidently pushed it away.  Had I calmed down I would have been able to hold on to the buoy and he could have dragged me over to the side of the pool. Finally my cousin tore off his suit jacket and jumped into the pool fully clothed. It was necessary for him to wrap his arm around me from the back or I would have hurt him in my attempt to save myself.
         Later when I was in flight attendant school and we learned water drills. Since I worked for Eastern Airlines and was based out of Miami a possible crash in the Everglades was always a possibility. At any rate,  I was instructed that in the event of an emergency landing, I was  to always subdue the person first and if that didn’t work to basically put them  in a headlock so they wouldn’t knock me out as I attempted to save their life.
         It’s interesting how that happens in real life. When we are going through something we sometimes hurt those very people who are trying to save us. We are so desperate to get our head above water that we lash out, often striking and sometimes hurting those who love us most.
         There is an expression that hurting people hurt people and it’s true. In my novel The Other Side of Through the readers see it with Edgar who is hurting from his own abusive childhood and hurts his wife Claire and later their daughter Jessie.  We see it also in Claire who is trying so desperately to hold it together that she hurts Edgar, Daphne and unintentionally Jessie. And of course Jessie hurts David, Marcus and potentially Shayla should the story continue.
         It seems the older I get the more the wisdom of my older relatives speaks to me. Growing up I often heard that the only way out is through. Had I not gone through the ordeal of nearly drowning I probably would never have learned to swim which would have kept me from water and prevented me from having some of the experiences I’ve had. For one I probably would have never moved to Florida-too much water-no one ever said fear was rational. I also wouldn’t have been adamant about my children learning to swim and I don’t dare think about what could have happened if they  hadn’t learned at an early age.
         Those first days at the YMCA learning to swim were not easy. I was afraid but I had to keep pushing.
         The only way out is through because on the other side there is freedom. Not
 necessarily in a physical  sense, although some may infer that, and not just in  a physical sense, though that’s true too.
That’s what the old woman in the woods was trying to explain to Jessie. Push, baby, push! Push even when it hurts and it seems easier just to give up because it hurts too much.
         There’s a story that you may have heard before. It’s about a man who prayed to God because he wanted to be closer to Him. God spoke to the man and said “See that enormous boulder over there? I want you to push it.” The man was so excited that he had gotten a word from God that he immediately went out and began pushing. He really put his back into it and used all of his physical strength to try to move that huge boulder. Hours went by and sweat was dripping from his face. His body ached from the strain but he didn’t give up. Hours passed and then weeks. Still no progress. Before he knew it years had passed and finally after ten whole years he cried out to God: “Why are you doing this to me? Why are you making me suffer Lord? For ten whole years I’ve been pushing that boulder like you told me to and it still hasn’t moved.”
The man heard a gentle voice that said “I told you to push it. I didn’t ask you to move it. Moving it is my job! But look at yourself now. Notice how beautiful your body has become. Look at how strong you are today as a result of pushing. You were so weak ten years ago but look at what you’ve now become.
         Like that man, like the characters in my novel, we all face boulders in life. The boulder may be regret, fear, anger, doubt, jealousy  or temptation but to get to the place where we need to be we have to push. We have to push through to the other side.
         People ask me all the time what is my novel about and that’s it: I think it’s really about pushing through no matter how badly we want to give up          There’s another expression that I heard the old folks use and that’s “I’m through” as they would throw their hands up in surrender. Unfortunately they were sometimes doing that in response to something outrageous I had done.
But like the man with the boulder and me in the water once we surrendered and accepted help and the reality of the situation-not as a punishment but a lesson-  there is an understanding that the process of struggling is necessary to get to the product of who we are supposed to be. 
         It’s all necessary because the only way out is through.
         Not long ago I was talking to a friend who told me about some one of the horrible things he had experienced in his life. When I asked him how he  had managed to keep on going when most people would have given up because the odds were stacked against him. He said that he realized that those negative events were commas and not periods.
         As a writer and a teacher of English, that really resonated in my spirit. Commas. Not periods. Commas you see are a place to pause and then you continue on with the rest of the story. In life those setbacks, those commas, are places for us to reassess what we are pushing for.
         The writing process is very lonely. We writers spend hours sitting alone at a computer screen or with a pen and pad of paper pouring our souls onto the page.  Never knowing if this painful work will produce something beautiful, but we keep pushing.
There are so many times when we want to give up. Nathaniel Hawthorne said easy reading is damn hard writing and anyone who claims otherwise is a liar. Writing is hardwork because it comes from a place deep inside of us. I know I agonize over every word hoping that I’m saying exactly what it is I mean to say and I grow frustrated because my medium is words. My mother is an artist and she has the luxury of choosing between oils or watercolors. I just  have words and words can only do so much. But I keep pushing. Every discarded draft ultimately brought me to this place.
         And to hear people tell me that Claire’s story, Jessie’s story, Edgar’s story, David’s story and Marcus’s story helped them push through to the other side has been worth it.
Thank you


  1. Dope, Dope, Dope, Dope, Dope…one of my favorite hip hop groups of yesteryear was a group that called themselves, 3X(times) Dope and I had to give you "5". Michelle you are such an eloquent writer and I very excited to read your book (I'm going to steal Nat's) ;-) Please keep pushing because your prose is absolutely divine. God Bless You. I wish I would have paid attention sooner!