Archive for the ‘Writing about your life’ Category

39. Snapshot: Three Women

June 12, 2018

There’s a little photograph I keep on my refrigerator door. In it, three women are sitting in a porch swing on the plain unadorned wooden porch of a farmhouse, somewhere in rural Illinois. The women pose with proper grace, smiling for the Kodak camera, with their hands folded neatly in their laps.

The house is quite small, made of clapboard neatly painted white. It’s summer. Emerald green fields of corn stretch out behind the house and seem to go on forever, all the way to the horizon. This is the front of the house, and the two windows that face the road are plain and functional too, and there are no curtains. The porch shade is more than enough from the midday sun, and there are no neighbors near enough to look in.

It’s Sunday after church, and the women are my mother and my two sisters. They have traveled all the way from Dallas Texas to Bloomington Illinois for Mother’s 50th high school reunion. This house is a place where Mother lived a long time ago as a child, and the current residents have welcomed her to the old homestead and invited all of them to stay for dinner.

In this small snapshot I can see through time, to past generations of strong farm women, practical, hard-working and generous. I love this little picture for its sweetness, its honesty and simplicity. Mother has left us now, gone from her place here on earth to a higher calling. Both of my sisters still live in Texas, both have grown children now. My own path has taken me from Texas to the East Coast, to the Midwest, and finally to the West Coast of Northern California where I call home, a long long way from Illinois. I take the picture down from its magnet on the fridge door and hold it in my hand for a moment. I hold these women in my heart forever.

31. How To Learn How

December 30, 2017

When I was much younger than I am now, I wanted to become a firefighter.* Never mind why; it’s a long story. I was small compared to the male firefighter Wanna-Bes I was competing with. I went to the gym and pumped a whole lot of iron and didn’t get much bigger but I did get hecka-strong. (It took a while.) I applied at every fire department hiring opportunity that came up and took the tests. First is the written – easy enough if you study hard. (You should study really hard.) Next, if you pass the written, you get to take the physical agility test.

I failed the physical agility tests of the first three departments I tried for, at first by a mile, and then by inches, and finally by 2/10 of a second. I went back to the gym. I put in an application at another fire department, and took another test. I failed another one. Maybe two. I forget now, because  once I passed, It didn’t matter, I would pass some more…

I had to fail, to learn how. I had never encountered those kinds of challenges, or even those kinds of objects, lifting and carrying heavy rolls of fire-hose, climbing the 100-foot aerial ladder, dragging the 160-pound dummy through the tunnel. (In the beginning, I only weighed 112 pounds myself.) Very early I learned two Essential Truths, and I’ll share them with you in a minute.

There are wonderful things you can learn from books, that’s one of the reasons I love them so much. But there are some things you cannot learn that way. You can’t learn how to play home-run baseball… out of a book. You can’t learn how to downhill ski… out of a book. And you can’t learn how to be a firefighter and perform the skills a firefighter must do extremely well, very quickly, and absolutely reliably… out of a book. Here comes one of those Essential Truths I mentioned:

Essential Truth #1: The only way to learn how to do it is to do it.

Take downhill skiing, for example. The first day when you go out to the bunny hill with big awkward boots and slats for feet, what’s going to happen? Right! You fall on your butt. Not once, but many times. There will be people around who will see you fall on your butt. Little kids will laugh. Some adults will smile smugly. Others will be annoyed because you’re messing up the good snow with your sit-splats, and getting in everybody’s way. “She shouldn’t even be here! She doesn’t know how to ski at all.”

The next day, you will again fall on your butt in front of everybody. A lot. But probably you will be doing a little bit better, and there will be thrilling moments when just for short distances, you get it, and miraculously, it works. It feels like flying! Your heart, for sure, is flying. Now when you fall, you get up quicker, you want some more of that good feeling.

By the third or fourth day,  your spirits soar. You get that feeling more times, for longer moments, right before each time you crash clumsily again. But now you will be up more of the time than down, and though not exactly smoothly or elegantly, you are skiing!

And pretty much like that, in spite of a very steep learning curve, I had to learn how to be a firefighter by doing the things a firefighter does. There was no other way. That meant falling on my butt in front of people a lot, and getting up again.

We who aspire to be writers, like anyone learning any skill, must expect the same process.  In the beginning, it’s the beginning. While the first levels of success in skiing may take a few days, writing more likely will take a few years. We’re learning how to express our gift. For every great writer, there was a beginning. Thus, Essential Truth #1 about writing: The only way you can learn how to do it is to do it. But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. Oh, and the skiing is fun too.

Essential Truth #2: Failure is a necessary part of success.

Falling down is one of the first things we all do in life. For a new-born person, this is necessary, inherent, and totally valuable. Failure is how we learn what to do and what not to do. There is no other way. 

We never learn as much from success as we do from failure. Therefore, allow yourself this part of the path. Expect to not be brilliant at anything right away. Expect a cartload of disappointments and possibly humiliations along the way. These do not prove you are un-brilliant. They only mark your serious commitment to the truest and best expression of whatever is your unique personal gift. It may be different from most people. Many people live their whole lives without expressing their truth, not because they don’t have any gifts, but because they don’t have the enormous courage it takes to do it.

Don’t be one of those. Fly down the snowtrails, again and again. Fall on your butt with joy if possible, or with determination if not, and then with embarrassed, wounded, but unconquerable pride, Get up.  Fall down, get up, keep going. Fall down, get up, keep going. Fall down, get up, keep going. You can do this,  if you want it bad enough. Because if it truly is your path, you will do it.
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*I did become a firefighter and served eight years with Alameda County OES Fire Department as a line firefighter and officer.
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