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A Country Mile

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

“I am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project http://www.iamsubject.com/the-iamsubject-project/. Here is my #iamsubject story.”

Do you have a women’s story you want to submit for possible inclusion to an upcoming anthology? Please click on the link above and join us. 

 

Have you ever hear the sermon about the guy who’s caught in a flood and ends up on the roof of his house? Cold and scared, he prays for God to rescue him. Before long, a log passes by, and he reaches out, but misses it. Then he sees a guy in a rowboat approaching him. He starts to get excited, but when the boat gets close, he can’t bring himself to step off the roof. Now frantic, he looks toward heaven and makes a more desperate plea.

Eventually he hears a rescue helicopter flying overhead. He’s relieved until a gust of wind swings the basket wildly and he becomes afraid to climb into it. Finally he’s swept away with the current and dies. When he sees God, he’s angry that his prayers were unanswered. God says to him, “I sent you a log, a rowboat, and a helicopter to try to save you.” In shock, the man replies, “You sent those?”

Well, my life reminds me of that story.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a tough time figuring out what I wanted to career-wise. Like the man on the roof who got excited each time he thought help was on the way, I’ve gotten my hopes up, only to have them dashed when things didn’t work out. For years I’ve prayed about it and asked for inspiration.

In first grade, I was positive I wanted to be a nun. In the fifth grade, it was a prima ballerina. By high school, my calling became less clear. A good student, I didn’t feel drawn towards any one subject. When it was time to decide on a major, with my anxiety rising, I began to search in earnest. At the last moment, I settled on textile engineering. My mother was a fashion designer, my father an engineer, and I was a people-pleaser.

After two years in college, I lost my way. I quit school, got married, had a baby. I began a series of “do anything for a buck” jobs. I worked in sheet metal, I painted warehouses, I stocked shelves. When my marriage didn’t work out, I took in sewing in order to support myself and my son, and decided to finish my schooling.

Again it was time to choose a major, and the panic returned. As a single parent paying for my own education, I had to make it count. I settled on psychology, since I’d always been curious about people and relationships. I can still remember my excitement as I declared my major. I sailed through my classes and thought I was finally on my way.

But the excitement was short-lived. When graduation time came around, well, you guessed it. I couldn’t figure out what to do with my degree. It appeared that grad school was necessary for most of the jobs in psych. By then I had remarried and my new husband was working on his PhD in economics. It was my turn to help with our financial situation.

I ended up working for my brother’s start-up computer company, at first in human resources, and then writing computer manuals. I found that I had a knack for learning new software and writing step-by-step instructions. Technical writing became my specialty, and eventually I moved on to other software companies. The money was good, and it kept me motivated for a long time. Finally I could not write one more computer guide. I had continued to study personal growth on my own, and felt called to share what I had learned.

The company I was working for at the time was expanding. I switched to employee development, teaching small-group seminars on professional and life skills. The employees seemed to enjoy the classes, and I was finally using my psych training. I was convinced I had found the right career at last. Unfortunately, there was a change in management, and the job was dissolved. Disillusioned, it was time for a real leap of faith.

I’d gotten close to my dream career, but something wasn’t quite right. Then I happened upon an out-of-print book called Living Life on Purpose, by Greg Anderson. The author suggested that the little voice we hear inside, nudging us, is the voice of God. This was a startling idea to me. I’d always thought of God as somewhere out there, not within. As Anderson says, “Spiritually God has already assigned us a unique mission. God has given us talents and has given us the guidance of our Inner Wisdom as to which talents give us the greatest pleasure.”

Shortly after that, I had a dream about my dad, who had passed away that year. He had beautiful handwriting, from the Palmer Method they taught in his day. When I was little, he used to take my hand and help me practice making circles on the page to ensure that I was using the proper motion. When I awoke from the dream, my hand was moving in a circular motion and I was repeating the word “write.” Could there be a clearer sign of what I was supposed to do? I had been writing for years, but not from the heart.

With a new sense of direction, I decided to try freelancing. I wrote a book about the benefits of psychotherapy. I started submitting articles to the local newspaper, and eventually landed a monthly column. I published a book of personal reflections, followed by a book about my parents’ courtship during World War II based on dad’s love letters to my mom. I have become a writer.

So what does all this have to do with the man on the roof? Well, for years I prayed and cried, cried and prayed about my career “block.” But when I step back to look at how my prayers have been answered, it’s kind of embarrassing that I didn’t recognize the clues. Over the years I’ve had: grammar drilled into me by the nuns; a huge family and rich life experiences to write about; years of computer experience; and my own dad appearing to me in a dream, taking me by the hand and showing me my future.

As if that weren’t enough, I found a friend and mentor in the person of Earl Hamner, creator of The Waltons TV show. One of my early newspaper articles was about the strong family values inherent in the series. Mr. Hamner and I began corresponding. I have adopted his personal philosophy: “We are human and small and vulnerable but our journey can be magnificent and memorable and worthy, valuable to us and to those whose lives touch our own.”

You hear musicians say they don’t write their music, they just hear the songs in their heads. Writers experience a similar phenomenon. The words don’t come from me, but through me. The work is effortless, and energizing, because I’m finally doing what I love: using my voice to inspire others. All my life, I’ve been told that I’m smart. But on this career issue, as my friend Earl would say, I didn’t see it coming for a country mile.

 

Getting to Know Dad

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Here is my tribute to the Greatest Generation, in honor of all those who were killed and injured at Pearl Harbor 70 years ago today. First published in The News & Observer in 2007, it feels like an appropriate offering for today:

I was born in 1957, just twelve years after WWII ended. Like most Baby Boomers, as a youngster I was interested only in things that were new and hip. Bell bottoms, Levi jeans, Carole King records. I’m the youngest of eight children, so my parents were older when I was born. Middle-age parents with old-fashioned ideas were sometimes hard to bear.

By the time I was old enough to be aware of world events, the cultural revolution of the late sixties was going on. One brother had served in the Air Force in Korea; another was in the Army in Vietnam. To me, WWII was ancient history.

My father was a brilliant, but quiet man. He was a good dad. Like most men in his generation, he spent the majority of his time working hard in order to pay the bills and put food on the table. He wasn’t much on talking and, like a typical teenager, I wasn’t that interested in his life anyway.

Until it was too late.

We found his love letters several years ago while helping my mother pack to move to an independent living residence. Over fifty of them, by the time we were finished. Romantic, engaging, and inspiring, they revealed a side of him we had not known. They were filled with words of encouragement for my mother, telling her to keep her chin up during the troubled times. Perhaps they were also the words he needed to hear?

Embedded in the letters were also bits of history, details about his naval officers’ training and the progression of the war. Reading them, I felt such a mixture of emotions. Grief, for the opportunity, now lost, to know the real man. To hear his stories in person. To ask questions. Yet profound joy in the physical permanence of the letters. His beautiful handwriting, his struggles, his undying love for my mother.

Why didn’t he tell us that he’d been a “Ninety-day wonder” who trained almost every waking moment for months in order to join the war as soon as possible? That, as a young ensign, his best buddy was Wellington T. Mara, later the long-time owner of the New York Giants. He never mentioned Key West or Miami, where he was stationed, or blackouts, or rationing, or war bonds.

We never heard about “The Sylph,” the Navy yacht on which he trained for a few days despite seasickness fears. I wonder if he knew that the antics on the TV series McHale’s Navy were derived from Earnest Borgnine’s real-life experience as a first-class gunner’s mate aboard “The Sylph?” Dad didn’t tell us anything about the gyroscopes he studied at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for four months, training he never got to use because of an apparent Navy SNAFU. And although we’d watched the movie PT-109 together, he never once mentioned that he headed the section base that repaired the PT boats.

I guess to him none of it seemed worth the telling. It was just his life. All that had been long ago, when he was a much younger man, doing his duty during wartime. I’m sure he didn’t consider himself to be extraordinary, or to have lived through extraordinary times.

I’ve spent the last two years transcribing the letters and reconstructing the story of my parents’ early life together. My mother is 88 now, but she has an amazing memory, especially for that time period. Unlike him, she’s a born storyteller. I was able to verify much of what she told me via the Internet. I even located a copy of a Collier’s magazine from March 28, 1942, which featured the men of the Prairie State, the ship he trained on.

Together Mom and I went through bins of mementos, newspaper clippings, and photos. We found Dad’s Navy yearbook, The Sideboy, and a dance card from the ship’s farewell ball the night before his graduation and their engagement luncheon. No longer ancient history to me, this was living history, my history.

My dad was never awarded any medals, but I know he was a hero. They all were. The men who died, the men who lived, the women who went to work, the ones who waited at home and rolled bandages for the Red Cross, the WACs and the Doughnut Dollies.

Suddenly we’re the middle-agers, and many would argue that we’re still self-involved. But I think we know that the Greatest Generation is leaving us, and before long it will be too late to thank them for their sacrifice and tell them how fortunate we are to have known them.