Cholla or Magnolia?

About fifteen years ago, we had dinner guests whom I’d never seen before and will likely never see again. I remember them by something they discussed, a topic I’d never considered that much—the trees in the Palmetto State: their variety, greenness, and abundance.  

The guests were from California, here in South Carolina to pick up their son who had completed a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were excited to be taking him home and wanted to see some of the sights he had seen and meet some of the people he’d known. I don’t remember where the young man had served besides Camden and Charleston, but Charleston was a place his parents had read about, and the history, the Battery, the Citadel, the carriage tours—all of it captivated their interest and helped them decide to make the trip to South Carolina to collect their missionary rather than have him board a plane for home.

Before arriving at our home, they’d spent the day in Charleston, and rather than stay on I-26, they opted to ride some secondary roads that would allow a closer look at the real South Carolina. The foursome exited the interstate somewhere near Santee and discovered a charming little town called Elloree and eventually ended up in Sumter. All was well. But somewhere on Hwy 521 between Sumter and Camden, they (especially the mother)  began to feel a bit overwhelmed by the curving, tree-lined roads that seemed to go on and on.

“It seemed like we’d been riding forever, and we were still fifteen miles away from Camden,” the mother told me. Trying to understand her astonishment, I said, “Uh-huh” and nodded in encouragement. I wanted to hear more.

“Where we’re from,“ she continued, “you can drive a straight line from point A to point B even though it might be miles and miles away. I’m talking fifty miles or more,” she said with more than a hint of perplexity and perhaps a little irritation, too. 

“And there aren’t many trees to block the view either,” she said. 

At the time, I thought it was kind of amusing. After all, I traveled that stretch of road nearly every day and knew exactly how to gauge the distance. I could feel the landscape and its beautiful trees, fields, hills, and curves.

When we visited Utah, Arizona, and South Dakota years later, I remembered the missionary’s mom and understood what she meant. If I’d grown up around Cholla cactus and Ponderosa pines, my psyche and sense of place would have been different—not better or worse, just different. Instead, I grew up around oak and elm trees—magnolia too, and dogwood. Green lushness, magnolia blossoms, profusions of pink azaleas, and the delicate blooms of dogwoods and crepe myrtles were my companions during the spring and summer. Red, orange, and golden leaves led the way from fall to winter. Interwoven with the seasons, native trees formed my life’s background and setting, something I’ve just come to know and appreciate. 

Recently a friend introduced me to the work of Terry Tempest Williams, a writer, activist, environmentalist, and teacher from Utah. One of the reviewers for Refuge, the book I’m currently reading, said Williams shows how human emotional life can become intertwined with a particular landscape. So true, I thought. I’m beginning to recognize that more each day.

What about you? How has your environment affected you and formed the background for your life? Or has it?

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Twenty-three Books?

When I went to work at Central Carolina in 2002, I overheard a short conversation I’ve never forgotten. It was during that welcome back/orientation/registration period when faculty were freer to talk and exchange ideas.

“So what’d you do this summer?” one co-worker asked another.

“I read twenty-three books, give or take,” she said.

I turned around to get a good look at the speaker, knowing she was someone I wanted to get to know. Since that day nearly eighteen years ago, I’ve tried to meet that quota. It hasn’t happened—probably never will. BUT I’ve read more books this summer than anytime in my life, and I give COVID19, my reader friend, and Stephen King the credit. Interestingly, every book is somehow linked to the others.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King

A neighbor introduced me to the work of Chaim Potok a year ago, and The Chosen, the first of his novels I read, led me to more of his work and to other Jewish literature, including nonfiction. This afternoon I dipped into Good Book by David Plotz, a book described as being an “irreverent, enthralling journey through the world’s most important work of literature.” Earlier this summer, I read a novel based on a Jewish family who survived the Holocaust, We Were the Lucky Ones. Confession: I busted out with strong emotion during a passage toward the end. It’s rare for me to get choked up while reading

Last month, someone recommended Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longing, and I promptly ordered it for my Kindle. Amazing writing. We all know who Jesus is and how He died, but that doesn’t take away from the story and its thrall. In the novel, He marries Ana, a young woman who must flee to Egypt with her aunt, and the reader knows that Christ’s mission has begun. While in Alexandria, Ana’s life is, um, sheltered and precarious at the same time. Curious and clever, she is quite the scholar, unusual and dangerous in her world. She has a voice and uses it to write her ideas and longings.

I’m well aware that there’s no mention of Christ being married in the Bible. But my purpose isn’t to argue about that. No one can win that discussion.

The book’s nature is informative and fascinating. It’s a story, several actually, that totally immerses the reader in the time and place of its occurrence. I’d never considered how hard Jesus’s family’s life must have been; how the Passover scene sounded, looked, and smelled; how dusty the road to Calvary was; and the dis-ease caused by occupation of the Romans. I knew these things, but Kidd’s thorough research and narrative style helped me feel present in the life and times of Jesus.

Reading Longings led me to The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, another of Monk’s works, this one nonfiction. Much of it was beyond my current scope of knowledge and understanding, but I could feel everything she wrote. Patriarchy is alive and well in all religions that I’m familiar with, and yet it’s something I’ve never questioned. Kidd’s words forced me to examine my beliefs and ideas, not only in religion but also in other elements of society.

When my daughters were in elementary school, one of them had a male teacher, the only one in the school. Why? A sociology text hinted that teachers were like mommies away from home, there to clean noses and dry tears, something that women were coded to do. More males began to appear in elementary schools, and more females began popping up in places from which they had previously been excluded, like government, medicine, and law.

Last week, I was introduced to the work of Terry Tempest Williams, a writer, activist, naturalist, and environmentalist from Utah whose writing touched my soul. I just finished When Women Were Birds and am working on Refuge. Both books are about finding one’s voice and the myriad connections between the natural world and its people. She was raised in the Latter-Day Saint culture, something that makes her writing even more interesting, profound, and personal.

Some seeds have been planted in all that reading, y’all. Remembering my friend’s twenty-three books and King’s advice pushed me to do more reading during the summer of Corona, an action that will hopefully motivate my muse mojo.

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Stuck on a Story

“Maybe it’s. time for you to write some poetry,” my writer friend said.

“Yeah, right,” I said, knowing full well that I have a snowball’s chance in you know where of writing a decent poem. She went on to say that a lot of the stuff (see how good I am at thinking of just the right word) I’ve written in the past is already like poetry—just needs a little doctoring up.

I appreciate her words of encouragement, and maybe one day I’ll give poetry a shot, but right now I just want to write a decent short story. I know how to do it. That’s not the problem. I can talk about conflict and resolution with the best of ‘em and can easily spot the structure in other people’s work. I can even write decent beginnings and endings. With the help of my critique group, I’ve learned a whale of a lot about decent dialogue, the importance of setting a scene, how to develop characters, and dozens of other elements of fiction that I didn’t know about six or seven years ago.

Why is that? I’ve wondered about that lack of knowledge many times over the years, and the only answers I’ve come up with are that (1) I read more nonfiction than fiction and that (2) I don’t have a vivid imagination. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good novel and can get lost in a well-crafted short story. But honestly, I’ve never studied fiction writing as a form until recently and have spent my entire professional life reading and writing nonfiction. And while I’m being honest, I’ll go ahead and announce that my grandchildren have written short stories that demonstrate more creativity and promise than anything I’ve written so far. Maybe they’ll give me some tips.

Back to structure. I’ve been working on an awakening that I experienced in a Nashville bar and grill a few years ago. My husband had one resolute goal: hearing some live music performed in Music City on a Saturday night. I won’t go into the story right now. I’ve written and rewritten it so many times that it’s lost its energy. Stale and flat. A man in my critique group made a sole comment: “It’s not juicy enough.” And you know what? He’s right. I swallowed my pride and looked through the middle of the story, the part where some action should be taking place, and yet all that’s happening is people talking…and they’re talking in a forced, artificial way. Boring.

In discussing the issue with a writer par excellence yesterday, she suggested that I put it away for a while. I’ve been doing that off and on for three years. After assuring me that she had dozens and dozens of such stories, I felt better. That’s when she suggested poetry. But I’ve got some other ideas cooking.

Enforced isolation has given me more time to read and reflect, not just on what I read but also on the world and its people, situations, and history. I see more clearly how being raised in the American South in the 1950s as a white girl influenced my worldview. Rocket science, right? Seriously, I’ve been so busy getting and spending all my adult life that I haven’t had the contemplative time to process the imprint of society on all of us.

Next up, gender issues. Or social injustice, intersectionality, kindness, or the importance of being a decent human being.

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Addy’s Granddaughter

Good readers make good writers. At least that’s what I keep telling myself when I fail to work on a story or submit something I’ve already written. In my critique group, sometimes we talk about workshopping a piece to death, and I’ve been guilty of doing that, too. A few weeks ago, a fellow writer told me the writing in one of my stories that takes place is Nashville was “fine,” but that I needed to make it more juicy.

“Juicy?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. Just juicier. It’s hard to explain.”

Actually, I think I know what he meant and have been trying to spice the story up with stronger nouns and verbs and more vivid descriptions. But for today, I just want to share a review of a book I just finished, We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter. It was well-written, jam-packed with historical information, and filled with well-developed characters who really lived–some still do.

But enough preliminaries. Here’s the review I placed on Amazon.

“Each time I read a book about the Holocaust, Jewish history, or a Jewish novel, I think, “That’s the best book I’ve ever read,” and for a week or so, it is. And then another one finds its way into my heart and mind. We Were the Lucky Ones did just that, and I think it’s going to stay with me for a long, long time.

“A family saga about two parents, Sol and Nechuma Kruc, and their children and grandchildren during WWI, the novel begins in Poland and takes the reader to many parts of the world, including Morocco and Brazil, and the forests, gulags, and ghettos, and mountains within. The couple’s five children are separated from their parents and each other for much of the novel, and there is suffering, anguish, hardship, fear, perseverance every day for each one of them. Through their experiences, the reader gets an up close and personal view of the horrors of the era as seen through the perspective of various family members.

“One of the five Kruc children, Addy, has a granddaughter, Georgia Hunter, who upon learning of the amazing history of her family and their experiences, embarks on years of extensive research to reveal this work of historical fiction based on true events. I knew this novel was going to be powerful when I read Hunter’s epigraph at the beginning: “By the end of the Holocaust, 90 percent of Poland’s three million Jews were annihilated; of the more than thirty thousand Jews who lived in Radom, fewer than three hundred.”

“Although I’ve read Night, The Hiding Place, Survival in Auschwitz, Anne Frank, Mila 18, The Hiding Place, and several Chaim Potok novels, this book really got to me and raised my consciousness to a higher level. I think it was because of the people, real people and their families, many of whom still live today.”

If it’s true that good readers make good writers, Georgia Hunter’s historical fiction surely added to my knowledge of how to improve my writing. Somehow she managed to write her family’s survival of the Holocaust and show the importance of perseverance, courage, hope, and a strong will to live.

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Aim for Paradise

Since this is a blog devoted to reading and writing and since I’ve done more of the former than the latter lately, I’m sharing a little about a book that I found engaging, informative, and aware (or more aware). By Jordan Peterson, it’s titled 12 Rules for Life.

I thought this was a book about living a better life. So why was the author writing about lobsters in the first chapter? Because lobsters are similar to humans in how serotonin affects their confidence and behavior…and because Jordan Peterson is a brilliant writer who knows how to effectively use research in interesting and sometimes amusing ways to get his points across.

It turns out that the lowly lobster had become a sort of unofficial symbol on tee-shirts and other memorabilia owned by Peterson fans. Stand up straight and face the bullies; it’ll improve your confidence and embolden your behavior. Plus, you’ll be in a better mood, not bitter or sullen. Read all about it in Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

The 12 rules are basic and familiar to almost everyone, “almost everyone“ because some people either don’t know the rules or they don’t see the importance of following them. For example, bird of a feather flock together and people are known by the company they keep fit neatly under Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you. Peterson shares some history from his formative years and offers much food for thought about how relationships affect us for better or worse. When a person spends too much time around the wrong sorts of people, they become diminished, and “much of what they could have been has been dissipated.”

Rule 5 should resound with parents who truly desire a satisfying life for their child. As a mother, grandmother, aunt, and teacher, the sterling advice in this chapter can’t be dismissed. Toward the end of the chapter Peterson offers five disciplinary principles beginning with “limit the rules” and ending with “act as proxies for the real world.” He reiterates what I’ve learned from experience and observation: “It is the primary duty to make their children socially acceptable.”

Peterson added a coda to the end of his book, and I enjoyed that as much as the rules themselves. “What Shall I Do with My Newfound Pen of Light?” he asks and then proceeds to share some soul-stirring questions and answers. I’ll mention only one. “What shall I do with my life? Aim for Paradise and concentrate on today.” Profound and stirring, yet simple.

All of Peterson’s rules are solid, and not only does he develop them with an engaging writing style and documented evidence, he also sprinkles the book with information about  the Old Testament and New Testament Gods, Cain and Abel, Jung and Freud, Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn, Adam and Eve, and a host of other interesting and credible persons.

Sometimes the reading is slow going because of the wealth of information and the thought-provoking style of the book. It’s worth it, though. Take the time.

Posted in book reviews, books, inspiration, nonficion, personal growth, psychology, reading, religion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Attitude Adjustment

Ever had something come along at just the right time, something that made you wake up and see truth? A moment when you felt woke? One day last week two incidents occurred within such a short period of time that I knew it couldn’t be coincidental.

One of my dozens of favorite new books is The Pocket Muse: ideas and inspirations for writing by Monica Wood. Its layout and plethora of ideas are original and inspirational. After reading “A Note from the Department of Attitude Adjustment” (at end of post after wingdings), I sent it to members of my writing group in case anyone, including me, needed a prompt to get his or her mojo going. The next morning a perfect opportunity presented itself, an ungrateful person who got an attitude adjustment.

I was sitting in our sunroom, a renovated screened-in porch complete with windows that allow awesome views of nature at her best—morning, noon, and dusk. I’ve been known to stop my goings-on, usually reading or writing, in mid-sentence to watch low-flying birds circle the yard, a neighborhood cat stealthily stalk and pounce a tiny bird, or squirrels scamper up, down, and across tree limbs. 

On this particular morning, I was reading Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy when my husband appeared in the doorway, a small bundle of clothing tucked under his arm, to let me know he was going to his daughter’s house to take a shower before meeting friends for a weekly breakfast. Lucky us, we have family nearby with plenty of water for bathing, drinking, cleaning, teeth brushing, hand washing, and all the other uses I pretty much always take for granted.

It was so unfair! How was I supposed to shampoo my hair with no water? How long before the City of Camden repaired the water main? Sulking, I returned to Lamott’s book and soon came upon a passage in which she described a tribe of people in Senegal whose water supply was dwindling daily. Not only were their wells dry; so were those of nearby villages. Team members from Project Hunger arrived to assess the situation and offer assistance. Expecting to come across sullen, complaining, angry people languishing near death, they were surprised to see a group of happy, “joyous,” optimistic people dressed in colorful tribal attire. Scarily thin, yes. Despairing, no.

The women of the village had seen a vision—all of them, many times—and they had a plan. The problem was that the men were dead set against it. In the shared vision, the women saw a lake beneath the ground, and they wanted to dig until they hit water. The project team convinced the mullahs to allow the digging, and for over a year, the women dug with small utensils and their hands, and one day, the vision became reality. The lake was there. Throughout the digging, the men watched from a distance as they worked, often drumming in the background.


Your turn. Try using the above prompt from The Pocket Muse to write about a time you experienced an attitude adjustment.

Posted in books on writing, nonfiction, readng, Uncategorized, Using Prompts, writing groups | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Master Story Teller

I read a couple of Ron Rash’s stories in Burning Bright this morning, and like always when I read the work of a master storyteller, I stand amazed at the craftmanship and intensity of the story. “Back of Beyond” is especially strong. From the way Rash uses the weather and setting to set the tone to how he uses the interplay of characters to convey relationships and consequences is amazing. Absolutely amazing. 

I’ll get back to several elements that make “Back of Beyond” so memorable in another post. This afternoon I’m focusing on one little, yet huge, variable in relationships that Rash conveys better in fiction than most writers can do in nonfiction. As a semi-retired psychology instructor, I’m familiar with the concept of “enabling” and could write a definition and provide several examples. Yet I KNOW that all would fall short of what Rash does in the culminating scenes of the story. 

Ray and Martha, probably middle aged, are shivering under quilts in a trailer without heat while their son Danny, a meth addict, and his current girlfriend are dozing beneath a quilt in his parents’ home. The parents are scared to go home because of reasons you’ll have to read about in the story. Suffice it to say that they’ve pretty much turned their home over to Danny, and they’ve moved into his trailer. Parsons, the brother of the middle-aged man shivering in the trailer, takes matters into his own hands, and at some point, Ray and Martha are able to return to their home. The son and his lady friend are no longer there. No one died. At least not in the story.

But here’s the thing. His mother says several things that let the reader know how much she loves her son—and that her love has enabled him to continue his current lifestyle. I’m not holding Ray, the father, unaccountable. It’s just that in the story, it’s Martha who says, “It ain’t his fault.” And then, “It ain’t Danny’s fault.” And after Parsons brings them food and reinstates them in their home with a promise to have the electricity cut on the next day, Martha says “You had no right.” 

So what is the fine line between loving and enabling? Why can’t some parents see that difference? Why can’t some parents/friends/loved ones see that enabling is crippling to everyone involved?

I can’t answer those questions. All I know is that one day I’d like to write a story as believable and well-done as “Back of Beyond.” Truthfully, I’d be happy to write one half as well-done.

Posted in book reviews, fiction, readng, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly

So much to think about, so little time to write…at least in any coherent fashion. Yet if I continue to wait until my muse mojo is visiting, well, let’s just say it might not happen. So while the newfound knowledge and the excitement I felt while learning it is still with me, I’m sharing a few things you too might find helpful.

At a recent SCWA (South Carolina Writers’ Association) writing retreat, I learned so many things that it makes me wonder about the multitudinous* things I’m still completely ignorant about. It’d be amusing if I weren’t so sad. For instance, one speaker mentioned in a casual way that a good method for getting into a flashback was to use “had” in a sentence moving into the memory and then just going for it. “It had been a sweltering day at the lake. We walked down to the water’s edge and saw….Maria gasped.” 

I listened politely but didn’t write it down. I had already picked up that helpful hint at another conference, and hearing it again was a reminder of how grateful and enlightened I’d felt when learning it. “Ah, I had thought. So that’s how you do it.” 

But here’s something I learned from a session entitled “Repetition and Evolution” that was truly eye-opening. Your characters can’t keep doing the same things over and over again without something happening. The same event(s) can’t keep occurring without some sort of resolution, even if it’s a dire one. Even if loss, heartache, illness, or even death result, something’s gotta give. 

The two presenters used several books and short stories to illustrate this concept, but the one I could most identify with was a children’s book titled There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. She swallowed several other items too, and the reader begins to think that something’s got to happen. She can’t go on swallowing things and continue to live. After the cat gets gulped down, I began to realize (like all readers probably do), that things are looking bad for this old lady. I mean, who can swallow a horse and live? Something has to happen and it does.

I recently discussed the repetition/evolution structure with a friend who’s writing a tension filled novel about spousal abuse. With careful planning and help from friends along the escape route, the abused spouse has fled the scene. She feels it’s her only choice, and from the picture the writer has painted, full of tension and downright fear, the protagonist is right. She needs to get out of Dodge posthaste. 

But here’s the burning question: what’s going to happen? How is this novel going to evolve? The abused woman can’t run forever. Is her husband going to die? Is he going to find her and do a little more pummeling? Or will he kill her? Or perhaps he’ll have an accident and go over a cliff on the search to find her? Maybe his car will explode from a bomb that ignites when he pushes the Start button. The possibilities are many, and I know this writer is aware of it and is in the process of creating the perfect evolvement right this minute.

Something else I’ve learned recently helped me to reconcile feelings of anger with understanding when I read an essay titled “A House in Collapse: Empathy in the Face of Unforgivable Acts.” But that’s a story for another day. Right now I need to ponder how to put repetition and evolution in a story I’m playing with.

*I know my critique group would disapprove of this word, but honestly, it’s the best one I could think of for this situation.

Posted in books, critique groups, stories, Uncategorized, workshops, writing, writing conferences, writing fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Reading and Writing

I’m a fledging writer. Well, maybe I’m a couple of baby steps beyond that, but every single day of my life I read something that just about knocks my socks off. See? I can hardly write without using a cliché. What I’m trying to say is that there are hundreds of thousands of writers who can tell stories or write nonfiction far better than I. And poetry? Sheesh. Let’s don’t even go there. I admire people who can write poems, but at this moment, it seems like an impossibility to me.

That said, I well understand that reading is a companion to writing. Whether one is reading the ingredients in Cheerios, a comic book, one of the classics, literary journals, or the New York Times, he or she is learning—not just about the world and its people, places, and things, but also about word usage, sentence structure, and description. But here’s a confession: until I joined a critique group, I never once considered studying how things were put together.

Now I look more seriously at the story behind the story, the theme that the author might not come right how and tell you but is there…always there. I look at how she or he begins a story or chapter or book and how the writer ends it. Does the end of the chapter leave the reader longing to turn the page to see what happens? Does the beginning give a sense of time and place? Is the protagonist introduced?

Oops. I’ve veered off course. My primary purpose of this post is to once again share my admiration for an author I “met” a few months ago, Chaim Potok. A Jewish writer, he introduced me to the world of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews who lived during the 1930s and 40s, and my interest was captured right away. I watched the Shtisel series and didn’t even notice they were speaking Yiddish! 

I stumbled upon The Chosen a few months ago and became interested in Jewish history, beliefs, and lifestyle. “Read The Promise next,” a friend said. “You’ll meet Danny and Reuven as adults.” But I ignored her and read In the Beginning, primarily because I found it at a Friends of the Library Sale. My Name is Asher Lev and I Am the Clay soon joined my queue of Potok’s books, all of which are extremely well-written and filled with fascinating information presented in novel form.

I finally read The Promise a few weeks ago. In it, Potok brings the reader into the lives of Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders as adults whom I first met as boys in The Chosen. The guidance of their fathers, one a teacher and the other a rabbi, influenced their life paths without actually determining them. The young men made their own choices. Weaving its way in, around, over, above, and through everything is the Jewish religion and the strong influence it has on every character in the novel—even those who are seeking change and attempting to move forward. 

Integral to the story are the connections between other individuals in their lives, including the Gordon families. Will Reuven receive smicha from Rav Kalman, a man who attacked Reuven’s father’s work? Will his father continue teaching in his current yeshiva? Will Michael recover from his catatonic state? What does the future hold for Danny and Rachel? Danny and Reuven and all other characters in the novel are part of a network of people who support, teach, and influence one another. So am I, I thought. Everyone is, even though all interconnections are not created equally. Relationships, just as they are in “real life,” are interdependent, and some are healthier and more helpful than others. 

I enjoy reading fiction and nonfiction, historical fiction and narrative nonfiction—all sorts of literature. Everything I’ve really appreciated, however, is something that’s made me think, something I’ve learned from, or something that has shone on a light on a social, cultural, or even personal situation. Sure, I enjoy reading for entertainment and amusement, but the primary criteria of whether I recommend a book is how well the author tells a story (or several) that illuminates life issues. The Promise does that—and more. 

Posted in book reviews, books, fiction, nonficion, reading, stories, Uncategorized, writers, writing | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Powerful Words at Goodwill

I enjoy going to old bookstores (new ones too) and thrift shops for book browsing. There’s no telling what treasures you’ll find there. Even if you don’t purchase a book, there are certain to be snippets of food for thought, passages that touch your heart, or facts that you didn’t know until that moment. Case in point: Winnie the Pooh was inspired by a real-life black bear purchased by a veterinary surgeon and captain in the Canadian Army. Who knew?

Friday as my friend and I surfed through the book selection in the back-left corner of a Goodwill in Fletcher, NC, she came across one of our favorites from the late 1970s, M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. She plucked it from the shelf, opened the book, and turned to me with an amused look, the kind that says, “Get ready. I’m gonna ask you something.” She was a teacher; I know that look.

“Do you remember the first sentence in here?” she asked, turning the book’s cover toward me.

“How could I forget? ‘Life is difficult.’ Those three words stung me, and I had to read more.”  Satisfied with my answer, she glanced back at the page.

“Doesn’t he go on to say that once a person accepts that life is difficult, then she can start solving problems?” I asked.

“Something like that,” she said, skimming the first couple of pages.

“I might buy it,” I said. “I know I have a copy somewhere at home, but I might run into somebody who needs to it, and I can’t part with mine.”

According to Dr. Peck, people moan more or less incessantly about how unfair life it and how their suffering and their problems are somehow deeper and more painful than others. Peck says he knows about this moaning because he’s done his share of it. He states that life is a series of problems and asks whether the reader wants to moan about them or solve them.

Rereading the first page of Peck’s seminal work reminded me of two things: (1) beginnings are important and (2) his book is filled with truth—and with some easy-to-understand ways of solving problems and alleviating pain and undue suffering. 

  • There are numerous examples of the importance of beginnings, but in the present situation, I’m referring to the beginning three words of The Road Less Traveled: Life is difficult. As mentioned earlier, they drew me in. As someone who wants to improve her writing, I’m learning the importance of beginnings in setting scenes, introducing characters, and capturing the attention of the reader.
  • Notice that I said easy to understand, not easy to practice. It’s difficult for people to give up their problems. Sometimes they don’t even recognize the fact that they themselves are responsible for bringing much of their suffering on themselves; it’s easier, after all, to blame it on someone or something else. And although I’m a little hesitant to say this, some people get a lot of mileage (sympathy and attention for starters) for their long-suffering. Woe is me and all that.

Mental health is a serious matter, and I’m not making light of it. I’m saying that there are proven ways to gain insight into one’s difficulties and work through them. Work is the operative word. “We cannot solve life’s problems except by solving them. This statement may seem idiotically tautological or self-evident, yet it is seemingly beyond the comprehension of much of the human race. This is because we must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it….I can solve a problem only when I say, “This is my problem, and it’s up to me to solve it.” (p.32)

A simplified version of Dr. Peck’s advice follows:

  • Nothing changes if nothing changes.
  • If not me, then who?
  • If not now, then when?

By the way, other pluses of reading The Road are several case studies (stories, y’all!), a powerful discussion about love, and many of the topics in the chapter “Grace,” including the miracles of the unconscious and of health. Sometimes I feel like words never die; they just jump from mind to mind. Dr. Peck’s powerful words influenced my thinking and teaching forty years ago…and still do.

I bought the copy last week. It’s yours if you want it.

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