“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives… And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future… To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
From You Can’t Be Neutral in a Moving Train by Howard Zinn
As a child welfare attorney, I had to learn to find my balance by some means other than cases won or lost. I would advocate zealously for a child to be re-united with a parent, because that was what the child wanted, and the parent had made enormous efforts to address whatever the family’s problems were.
And against all odds the judge would (sometimes) agree with me! The Department of Social Services, the other parent, the meddling relatives were all defeated by my superior lawyering (so I hoped)… and home that child did go, only to witness a murder thirty days later when their custodial parent got involved in a drug deal gone sour.
I got knocked on my emotional backside regularly (as did everybody in the child welfare system, especially the children). Because I never knew when I was winning or losing, I had to find meaning in being as constructive, compassionate, and competent as I could. If my client felt listened to, believed in, supported, and understood, that was a win, and maybe as much benefit to the client as any legal service I could have provided.
Writing commercial fiction has an element of the same challenge. If I make it all about the sales figures… some of the books I am most proud of are losers, and some of the books I just kinda tossed over the transom on a lark (looking at you, Noah and Thea), have become consistent reader favorites. The object of the exercise is not to top all the charts, but rather: Are my readers for the most part happy with the work? Am I proud to have my name on it?
Similarly, in light of current events I have resigned myself to the fact that I will not be appointed to the federal judiciary or elected Chief Poobah in Charge of Fixing Everything, but neither am I powerless or without courage. I ask myself: How can the kind of courage I have now be put to constructive use?
I can be a decent human being, I can vote, I can help the food bank and my local library makes ends meet.
I can also get off my Warp Nine Introverted Duff and help other writers polish their craft and expand their tool kits. My lazy, overwhelmed, scared self would rather sit at home playing cribbage and spider, (and I do play a lot of cribbage and spider), but I also still have contributions to make and candles to light. To that end, when I was recently asked to present at writers’ conference scheduled for Spring 2023, I said yes, because that’s something constructive I can do, a small step toward the light that I can take.
And it felt good, if a little wobbly, to say yes. In these daunting times, what candles are you especially good at lighting? Has anybody helped guard your flame recently?
Oddly enough, this morning was a prime example of making a difference. I got a semi-coherent, talking-so-fast-she-was-tripping-over-herself phone call from a friend who moaned, “I’m calling because I need you to talk me off the ledge.” So she poured out 56 minutes of frustration to my sympathetic ear while we went about our various morning routines. Once she wound down and I’d given what felt to me like a minuscule iota of guidance, verbal lovies, & what motivation I had to offer, she perked way up & gave a pleased, “I knew you’d talk me off the ledge. I feel so much better. I know what I’m going to do now. You were the only person I felt like I could talk to. Thank you for motivating me,” and off she went refreshed, clear of mind & ready to charge once more into the fray.
Some mornings, it’s nice to realize I serve a purpose on this planet, even if I don’t always see it. And that renewed my willingness to step up to the plate & take a swing when someone whimpers, “Help?”
What is therapy, but an hour a week of being listened to by somebody who cares? And therapy has changed my life for the better in so many ways. You are a good friend, Beth, and often all it takes is one good friend to make a big difference.
I could not have handled your job. I am sure that it made you much stronger.
I guard my own flame mostly. I work full time, have a husband and a son at home, have 3 40-60 pound dogs to care for and double digit cats. Three of my oldest feline family members are approaching expiration date quickly. We have lost 3 in the last couple of months.
For relaxation, I read good books. I recently replaced the sofa that the dogs had eaten down to the frame (really), and now I enjoy sitting on the sofa and reading in the company of our dog Gia and a few of our cats.
We have a pool and today I am taking 4 frogs to a pond nearby. I wish we had a pond rather than a pool in our back yard. I love the singing of the frogs. 🙁
I hope the animals, as much work as they are, also help guard your flame. I hope the pool helps revive your spirit, and I KNOW the frogs remember you kindly in their songs.
I am burnt out, really, from being the primary caregiver of my autistic son. As well, our youngest has had some mental health issues (not getting into them here) that has caused me heartbreak and stress. My DH is having his own issues so THERE IS NO ONE to help me relight my own damn flame.
I know I need to care for myself so I can care for others, but at this point, it seems those I love most in my life are depending on me to prop them up. The problem is, how can I prop them up when I am so wobbly it won’t be long until I fall over?
I try every day to do SOMETHING for myself, whether to have an uninterrupted shower or read something(can’t wait for the next Lady Violet) or sit out on my patio with a shelter magazine. These small things fan my flame so it doesn’t go out completely. I know I need a significant amount of time to recharge and get my fire going again but in the meantime, these things help me keep on keeping on.
I wish I could give you a hug! I’m right there with you, I know it doesn’t make it easier but I understand exactly and am trying desperately to figure out the answer myself to find caretaking sustainability. Sometimes there is no one else to do what needs to be done, it is such a hard place to be, and people always give the oxygen mask analogy without giving you an idea of what and where this magical mask might be for you. (Then they will also feel justified in judging because didn’t they tell you you are doing it wrong without offering solutions and you chose not to listen?).
Likewise I find grabbing those bits of time, long or short, to read, enjoy nature etc. to try to keep the fire from going out.
Those times when you are going on fumes, and then not even fumes… I’m sorry you are having to deal with this. I know the “compression phase” has been going on for months, and that’s on top of a pandemic, a choir hiatus, and home improvement challenges. It’s A LOT on top of too much.
And I agree with Sarah… all the people kindly lecturing us about self-care and oxygen masks are not offering to do without their masks so you can take a few deep breaths of the good stuff for a change.
The thread I hear in this lament is a need for solitude, in the shower, outside, between the pages of a book. LORDY do I get that. I wish you peace and quiet and breathing room, and hopeful prognoses for your menfolk. (Also good sleep, without which, everything is harder).
In these turbulent news times, it is really easy to feel overwhelmed by how little we can affect the way our country is run and the decisions that are made in the courts and legislatures. In an effort to keep from being completely disheartened, I concentrate on the little, local things I can do. First, I joined an organization that allows me to cook meals for anyone who is having a hard time, financially, emotionally, health wise; no questions are asked. Some people in the group have complained that they occasionally deliver to “wealthy” areas of town. My thought is that you can’t assume because someone lives in a nice house that they are without challenges. Also, if one or two people occasionally take advantage of their neighbor’s generosity, there are certainly more people who genuinely need the assistance. If I can brighten someone’s day with a homemade meal, my effort is well worth it. Second, in an effort to help our country revert to majority rule, I write letters encouraging people to get out and vote. Again, if I can make a small difference in a few elections, it makes me feel less helpless. Third, I’m sure you’ve read about the young woman who started a Facebook page where women can donate their wedding gowns to someone who maybe can’t afford one. Well, my 44 year old wedding gown is currently on its way to Lebanon, Oregon to a young lady who, I hope, will begin a marriage that is as happy as mine has been. I can’t do much to solve the big problems in this world; like you, I am not about to be appointed to the federal judiciary (though I do have a few good ideas on that). But if I can make small changes in my local community, it gives my life meaning. Stay safe. Stay well everyone!
I learn so much from my blog buddies… I did not know donating a wedding dress was a thing, but because of your comment, I googled it. Everybody from Goodwill to Martha Stewart has great ideas for used wedding dresses. Now I wonder what happened to mine…
I really like your good neighbor cooking, too, Tina. I think we we create something–a cutting board in shop class, a story, a batch of lasagna–part of who we are and what we’re experiencing goes into the creation. You are sending out caring and determination and good eats into your community all at once, and that is marvelous.
Thank you, Grace. That was a lovely piece, and I’m enormously grateful to you for introducing me to the book/film about Howard Zinn. I have his history book, but didn’t know about his autobiography. And I’m so happy you’ll be presenting at a writers’ conference. Such conferences are fewer in number than they used to be and somewhat problematic to attend since many writers no longer belong to the organizations hosting them. I hope you’ll post if broad attendance is permitted.
I will post. This is the PennWriters Conference up in Pittsburgh next May… COVID permitting. I’ve baled on several cons because of the COVID stats, but surely by next year…?
I belong to several writers’ orgs, because I think they all have something to offer, and I consume writing craft webinars pretty regularly. But the webinars are just not the same…
Gwendolyn Stulgis started a FaceBook page called “Shared Dream Dresses” where women can post their dresses and connect with a new bride who is in need of one. I just love the idea of passing on a dress which has so many beautiful memories attached to it. I hope the love and happiness that I experienced wearing it will follow the dress to its new owner!
I have been told I am a good listener and don’t judge or comment or back away from different subjects.But that is my past vocation shining through I think.We had some really scary moments in our line of work back then.I salute your courage stoic and determination you had has a children’s lawyer.Tough decisions and sometimes tragic outcomes.Writing stories with HEA endings hopefully has helped you through the journey.It certainly has helped many of your readers.The candle I hold is____Can I help in any way to get you through this.(I’m getting old but I can still be useful!!!)
My mom said toward the end of her life: All we really want is to be useful, and sometimes all you have to give is a smile–but it might the only smile somebody sees in their whole day, so I will keep smiling.
In this, Mom was right.
And yes, reading the HEAs, and then writing them, made such a difference in my ability to cope. The knowledge that at the end of the day I’d have a little escape, a little time to decompress with a good story, was the best medicine. The stories got me through so much, and are still getting me through so much. I am a lucky, lucky lady.
Good for you, Grace! You should be proud of yourself!!
I think the candle I light for myself is perseverance. I can power through just about anything, and sometimes have. I hope that provides an example for others, but mostly I just hope it carries me over until I can stand more firmly for myself again. I have to say I don’t worry much about being a good example, other than things like safe behaviors (including masking and social distancing!)
Books are always a welcome respite for me, to nourish my soul and help me keep the inner strength to persevere. Re-reads of perennial favorites play a big part- comfort reads ARE such a comfort, aren’t they?!
Every winter, I re-read Mary Balogh, and every winter, I enjoy the heck out of her stories. It’s magic.
I am not as persistent as I was when I was a young, single mother doing child welfare law, but I don’t think anybody should EVER have to be persistent like that for very long. I’m now better at avoiding overwhelming situations, saying no, and walking away.
Good on ya for the masking and distancing… I swear the people in my county must think they are immortal.
Thank you Grace once again, for a very helpful post. I am always late to this party but I enjoy reading everyone’s comments. I had not heard of Zinn but that quote at the top is a very key thing-to live as we should live in defiance of the bad around us. I am often in danger of giving in to despair and hopelessness, because I feel there is so little I can do and nobody is listening to me anyway. But then I decide to concentrate on the local everyday things I can do, and pull up my socks and get on with it. Mostly that means tutoring and/or teaching English as a second language, some driving to dr. appointments, some cooking. There is another quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that I use: we do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appears, discovering that we have the strength to stare it down.
I think a lot about Andre Trocme and the village of Le Chambon during the French resistance. Everybody in the village was in on it, and in some ways, that made honorable behavior so much easier. Even if a household wasn’t actively sheltering Jewish children, they could spare some eggs for the families who were. There was a tangible “us” doing battle against the forces of darkness, not just a “me.”
These days… Americans have no corner pubs or bocce leagues, we have obliterated Main Street institutions, the pandemic came along and shredded even workplace networks, and most of us don’t even get enough time with family much less have time to build community. Add to that a social media universe that thrives on division and dishonesty… it’s no wonder you are stalked by despair.
And yet, the things you do–get people to the doc, put together a meal, help untangle the vast mystery of the English language–are so substantial. They might be little steps to you, but to the people who get the medical care, who enjoy a square meal, who finally get how word order in English determines function, you are working miracles.
Eleanor would be proud of you, WE are proud of you, and you should be proud of yourself.
“They helped every one his neighbour; and every one said to his brother, Be of good courage.”
Isaiah 41:6 KJV
That said, the last few years have been hard. I have felt I had nothing to offer, or, maybe, anything I wanted to offer.
And, Grace, what I consider your best works aren’t ones I’m comfortable re-reading like I do the more throw-away ones. (Be interesting to compare what people consider “best.”) And I tend to remember them better, too.
Peter, Paul & Mary wrote and performed “Light One Candle” and Melanie Safka did one called “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain). Elton John is famous for Candle in the Wind. Jesus of Nazareth wrote about not leaving a candle under a bucket… Good on ya all of you who are doing what you can.
PS As a teacher, I never met a foster child who didn’t want to go “home,” no matter how dysfunctional.
The last few years have been SO hard, without precedent in the experience of living people, and I think many of us are operating from a sense that’s still not safe to come out yet. Just when we think it is, another variant gets loose, another natural disaster grabs the headlines, more political ugliness blights the landscape…
Is there anybody in the US who isn’t feeling daunted and drained? What bucket have THEY been living under?
And yes… the foster children usually did want to go home, and the ones that didn’t were often the re-treads. They’d heard the promises, been to the therapy, bought all the happy talk, and been let down a hundred times too many. Don’t get me started on family values…
Noah and Thea’s story is one of my favorites. I have reread it several times. Actually, if I had to pick only one of your stories to ever read again, it would be theirs. I can’t explain exactly why.