Author’s Note: In this piece I am trying to juxtapose two elements: one happy, another tragic. I want the reader to be tossed back and forth, knowing that these two worlds are about to collide. BTW this is a true story.
Green never took on as many shades, or the Earth appear as lush, as in the summer of ‘92 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Windows down, radio up, I drove, my newly minted sister-in-law in the seat next to me. I’d been married a blissful eight weeks. We’d eaten lunch at Red Hot Lovers, a delightfully greasy hot dog joint. I had the dregs of my Sprite in my cup holder, and she the last of her Diet Coke in hers.
Slowing, I came to a stop behind a sedan waiting to turn out into traffic.
We jammed to the beat, hands in the air.
Filling the crowded sedan were four Arab men in robes and two women in hijabs. One woman sat in the middle of the front seat, the other in the back on the right.
I drank the last of my Sprite.
The sedan driver turned yelling, pointing his finger. The woman in the backseat threw open the door. The man beside her, pulled her across his lap as she tried to escape. She thrashed against him. The second man in the backseat grabbed her. Her fist hit the back windshield. Her legs pummeled the first man as he reached out and slammed the door shut. The sedan, wheels squealing, sped out into the traffic. A car honked; another swerved.
I clenched the steering wheel, shaking.
As the sedan disappeared around a bend in the road, she whispered, “Did you get the license plate?
“The car was white.”
“It’s going east on…” Frantically, I searched for a street sign. “what road is this?”
“I think it was a Chevy? Maybe a BMW?”
The book winked at me; the title something like Curing Your Back Pain Without Medication. I was desperate. I couldn’t stand up straight, couldn’t walk without pain, couldn’t get out of bed without pain, couldn’t sit without pain…for twenty years I’d been in pain…
Sitting in the library—the wooden chairs were without cushions; I’d be able to stand back up—I read…
Most back pain wasn’t caused by disks or bulges but by one or more strong negative emotions. The author listed five: Regret, Shame, Rage…
I stopped reading.
I’d gone to a back-specialist years before. He’d shown me my x-rays. Pointed out my problem. Then he’d said something very curious, “I’ve seen patients with x-rays far worse than yours who are pain free.”
Was it possible that my rage was causing my pain? Years before I would’ve “raged” at that idea. Me? I’m not the cause of this! This is physical! See, look at the x-rays! But so many doctors later, I wanted the cure to be within my own grasp. You see, if I was causing my pain, I could also stop it.
I followed the author’s recommended procedure. I journaled about my rage. I mentally imagined going down into my rage basement and cleaning it out. I opened the basement windows, let in the fresh air.
Why would it? I’d been wronged by another person. Horribly wronged. I tore up the journal. Returned the book to the library. It had only made me angrier.
I began to walk along a well populated trail not far from my home. As I walked, I raged at God. After all, he, being the ultimate authority, was responsible for the hurt I had suffered at the hands of another. I don’t know what the other people along the trail thought of me, shouting up at heaven—I do not rage silently—but I am now quite well known by those who walk there.
After three months of this raging, as I returned from the trail to my truck, I recalled an incident where I had hurt the person who was responsible for my rage—the person who had hurt me.
Tired from my walk, on that wonderfully crisp fall day with the dead leaves crunching under my feet, I realized how terrible my words had been, how much pain they must have caused. I also realized that I never wanted to hurt another person as badly as I’d been hurt. I returned home and wrote a letter apology. Of course, that letter was quite difficult to write. I tended to digress…
“I am sorry, but you did this to me!”
Many crumpled sheets of paper later, I finally had a letter which only said “I’m sorry.” It did not blame the other person, or call to mind any other incidents—of which there were many. It did not speak of my pain, only the pain I may have caused. I sealed the letter, mailed it, and forgot it. After all, I knew this awful person I was apologizing to. I knew not to expect anything.
A week later I received in the mail a handmade envelope. Inside was a letter, written in ink without a single mistake. It said many things, but mostly it said, “I’m sorry, too.”
As I read that letter my pain disappeared. Occasionally, I wrench my back. But then I rest and the pain goes away. The weeks and months of pain are gone. I’m free. I’ve been free now for ten years. The pain left with the rage. I’m writing this to you, because that winking library book helped to heal me. It set me on a path which gave me back my life. It was a non-fiction book, but fiction is the same. It heals, because the stories we tell enable others to learn, to navigate this difficult life. Write. I swear, inside you is the medicine for a thousand wounds.
My neighbor, Sterling, complains. It seems I don’t bring my trash cans up promptly. But hey, I’ve got a life, and they’re TRASH CANS!
I’ve got a big brain, too. One morning as I watched Sterling take his trash to the curb and leave for work, I got an idea, a how-the-Grinch-stole-Christmas-idea. I grinned and patted my little dog on the head.
As the garbage truck rounded the corner, I ran down to the curb and drug my neighbor’s still-full garbage cans back up his driveway. When the truck had passed by, I drug them down again.
That evening, eager to see Sterling’s expression, I left work early and returned to find him standing at the curb gazing bewildered at the trash still in his trash cans while mine, and everyone else’s, were clearly empty. The next week he put his heaping cans at the curb. Quickly, I once again, hauled them back up his driveway, returning them to the curb when the garbage truck had passed.
That night his shouting rocked the neighborhood. “No, they’re not picking up my trash! It’s been two weeks! 110 Paxinosa Avenue!” I felt sorry for the trash guys. Well—almost.
The next week he had two cans full of trash and three extra bags. It was a trash party! I crossed my fingers, praying he wouldn’t wait around for the truck. He paced on the sidewalk, but after several glances at his cell phone he got in his light blue Prius, and drove away. I’d barely gotten the trash up his driveway when I heard the truck pull around the corner. On a hunch, I stowed the cans inside his garage and snuck out the back gate.
Wow, talk about dedicated. Those garbage guys actually walked up his driveway and looked around for the cans. They clearly had a note in their hands. They checked his address. Knocked on his door. All this for trash. Impressive.
When they left, I put the cans and the bags at the curb. Took two trips. That night a volcano erupted next door. I felt a little guilty—not a lot guilty—but a little guilty. I mean, I felt guilty in between giggles.
On trash day eve, nightmares of my neighbor assaulting me with a garbage can lid and a turkey bone rocked my sleep. I woke bleary eyed, to see my neighbor standing at the curb, surrounded by trash. I decided it was time I fessed up. About then the garbage guys arrived. I ducked behind my window curtains. It was ugly! The shouting, the claims of innocence, “There was no trash!” Shall I speak of the birds shot in the air, the words beginning with…well you get the picture.
About a week later, my neighbor had a backyard barbeque. I brought beer. There were four of us neighbors (right, left and across the street), beers in hand, feet on Sterling’s brick retaining wall, when Sterling told the story.
I thought no one knew. But everyone has windows facing the street. When Sterling went inside for more chips, Frank winked at me. Mark held out his hand. “Fifty, or I tell him now.”
Occasionally, I try humor. Let me know if I got it right.
Death is the absence of life. It is the white space on a painting, an empty hospital bed, a silent room, a closet of clothes. Death is the extinction of a species of only one. I closed my eyes. I woke, and he was gone. They took his body in the night. They came for the bed and the wheelchair by noon. We reduced his life to a photo and two columns in the newspaper. We sang his favorite songs. We spoke, “he was good friend, a wonderful father and an average golfer.”
Emotion is the currency of all good writers. But what if there is no emotion? What if death brings not regret, or anger, or longing, or even peace, but rather echoes? Did he call my name? I turned my head. Was that him, walking into his office?
Where is the salty taste of my tears? I become white space.
Can someone please tell me how to feel?
Weird. Dumb-ass. Late bloomer. How wonderfully my family described me. Yeah, you guessed it. I hated me, too. At fifteen, I had the social skills of a toilet brush. I spent most of my day desperately trying to say the right thing, so maybe I’d have some friends. Only in World History did I feel accepted. With her fantastic stories, my teacher brought history alive. She encouraged discussion. Even seemed to like me.
Forty-plus years later, I still remember how the room smelled of chalk and the musky perfume of the cheerleader who sat four chairs away; how it had a cooped-up warmth from the hour-long exhaling of twenty people. We sat crammed into small desks, the kind you slid into from the side with a writing surface big enough only for a single sheet of paper. Up front sat the teacher, the green blackboard behind her filling the entire wall.
Eager to express myself, I was quick to add my opinion on socialism. I spoke against welfare and social security. Rather, I said we should take care of each other. I didn’t believe the government needed to provide these services. In fact, I thought the government did a rather poor job. I suppose I didn’t express myself well; I wasn’t clear. Even to this day, I don’t fully understand why my opinion that people should look to themselves, rather than the government, to help their neighbor, should ignite such anger. Surely, at most, I was hopelessly naïve.
For a full twenty minutes, the class raged against me, calling me mean, harsh, unkind and unfeeling. Bewildered, I tried to explain my position, but the voices only grew louder more hateful. At the end of the class, the teacher asked me to stay behind. I stood beside her desk shaking from the effort to hold back my tears. Tall and skinny, I clutched my books in front of me, my shoulders rounded down against the recent blows. I thought she would apologize to me for letting the class get out of control. I thought she saw my hurt. Instead, very gently, she said, “I’d like to tell you about the Christ.”
Perhaps I should thank her. In one sentence she managed to teach me why the separation of church and state is absolutely necessary. After all, I’d just been told by a person, put in a position of authority by the government, that my political opinions were so heinous that I must be a heathen and in need of religious indoctrination, which she was eager to supply. I politely informed her that I regularly attended church.
Pivotal moments in our lives are marked by strong emotions: rage, hatred, shame, regret, fear, joy, hilarity, ecstasy. It is essential that we writers learn to convey these strong emotions to our readers. Story is emotion based. If we are not feeling, we’re not reading. So how does a writer learn to convey emotion? How do we teach ourselves this skill? My solution is to feel the emotion myself by first writing about a pivotal moment in my life. By grappling with my own past, by dredging up a betrayal, or the bitterness of regret, by reliving a moment of pure joy, I find that my subsequent writing tastes real. Of course, when the emotions I’m reliving are negative, the cost to me is huge, because I must bleed again, before my characters bleed at all.
How do we say more with less? Can short, simple words make what we write so clear that the reader gets it? Or will it remind them of reading a child’s board book?More info →
Three people are massacred in a beach house, a latch-key kid is fingered.More info →