Tuesday, March 3, 2009

On the Right Path

Raindrops keep falling on my head—no, it’s snow, in Georgia! March 1 we had a snowstorm that lasted for hours. While it didn’t stick around long, it provided wonderment while it lasted. I realize snow doesn't sound exciting to folks who have shoveled for months, but for us down here, it was magical. Big heavy flakes falling, falling like they would never stop.

I am taking time to enjoy the miraculous and the wonderful more these last few months. Maybe because the news is so bad? To hear everybody moan and groan, you’d think none of us every went through any hard times before and we are entitled to much better things. Reminds me of the first year of each of my sons’ lives, when I was certain they were going to be under one forever, and I would never get past the “can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t do anything exciting” stage of motherhood.

Or it reminds me of 1989. That was the year my husband lost his job in April, and mine ended in October. For the next nine months we had little income other than the advance for my third book—and those who write mysteries know that didn’t support a family of four for six months.

But you know what? I learned some valuable lessons in that year.
I learned to appreciate my family and to know my real friends. They are the ones who happily came over to roast weenies and marshmallows over the sticks we collected from the yard and didn't complain we didn't serve wine. The people we could laugh with, cry with, and not have to pretend with.

Trite as it sounds, our family really did rediscover free ways to have fun. Bike rides. Hikes. Telling ghost stories in the dark. Swims after dinner at a free beach. Public libraries and festivals in the park. When that year was over, one of the boys said, “I think we laughed more this year than ever before.”

We learned how to squeeze a dollar until it squealed, and how to evaluate whether we really needed to spend it or could wait another day or two. We learned that most purchases can wait. I learned the pleasure of reading through a catalogue and filling out the order form for everything I wanted to buy, then tossing it in the recycle bin.

I learned to identify with people who live like that every day of their lives, who don't have a good job, who barely have enough to buy what they need and never have enough to buy what they want.

I learned how much I and my own circle took for granted that a gracious, plentiful lifestyle ought to be ours because we worked hard and "deserved" it. I learned how quickly that myth can dissolve. I learned the taste of shame when I couldn’t go out for lunch, and winced when friends criticized poor people who buy steak, because I was a poor people, and I'd learned that when you have very little, you need a treat now and then to remind you that you are still human.

I eventually learned that we were no less worthwhile as human beings for not having work or money. That was hard.

Even harder, but maybe most important, I learned I can survive fear. Waking up at four a.m. and wondering what we would do when the money ran out. Praying the boys wouldn’t fall and break a limb because we had no insurance. Worrying that my husband would lose heart before he found work. I learned that fear, like a broken heart, doesn’t kill you unless you let it.

One night I had what may have been a vision and may have been a dream. I was walking on a three-foot wide path between grassy meadows. Gradually the sides sloped until the path was six feet high, then twelve feet above the ground. I walked more carefully, aware I could fall off. Suddenly the sides sheered and I was walking across the Grand Canyon! My path ahead looked like a thread, and I stopped, terrified. A voice said, “It’s the same path.”

It is, you know. Hardship is part of the journey. We writers know that characters who don’t experience hardship and setbacks make very dull reading. In real life, too, tough days shape who we become and make us far more interesting people.

Would I want to relive that year? Doubtful. And yet what I learned and experienced that year is currently going into a novel called HOLD UP THE SKY, which is about four strong women going through really tough times, who learn that true strength lies not in independence but in interdependence.

This kind of economy is a real good teacher of that truth. So as you walk in the valley of the shadow where life is hard and the future uncertain, my hope is that you newly learn to appreciate those who support and love you, that you rediscover a few simple pleasures you've forgotten as you've kept up with the technological age, and that you learn your own worth is not tied to what you earn or do for a living.

My gift to you is what I know: It IS the same path.

Patricia Sprinkle

HOLD UP THE SKY will be released in March 2010 by Penguin Putnam. To read more about it, visit my website, http://www.patriciasprinkle.com/

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No wine with the marshmellows? Now that's hard times.

Thanks for this thoughtful piece.