I’ve often heard the above quote, but had no idea who said it. I was thrilled to learn it was Theodore Roosevelt, whom I’ve always admired. TR was president during the Progressive Era, which was such an interesting time in the history of our country. Some people may not know that before he became president, Roosevelt suffered many losses. Big losses. Both his mother and his wife died on the same day. And on Valentines Day, to boot. Roosevelt was known to be a faithful diary-keeper, and on that date in 1884, he wrote a big “X” on the page and then added, “The light has gone out of my life.”
It was after that devastating time that he decided to go West and travel. He ended up buying a ranch in the Badlands, and this experience further enhanced his love for the outdoors and hunting. Later, as president, Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. During this time, Roosevelt protected approximately 230 million acres of public land.
I think what I admire most about Roosevelt is his tenacity and grit. In addition to his service to our country, and the loved ones he lost, he was very sickly as a child, due to severe asthma. Instead of giving in to his ailment, he made it his mission to overcome it by living a challenging and strenuous life. He always strived to get better, and not dwell on his past defeats and heartaches. He rose above and did great things.
Just thinking about losing his spouse and mother on the same day is overwhelming. How does anyone overcome such a loss? And then become President?
Hold tight to those thoughts, and hang with me, while I venture into some other ideas. I promise (or at least I hope) that this will all make sense once the threads are woven together…
One of the traits I have that makes it possible for me to write and also to be a counselor is compassion. Compassion is defined as “the sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” I don’t want to sound haughty, like I’m bragging because I’m compassionate. It’s not that at all. Because there is a down-side to being compassionate. And I’ve been experiencing those extreme negatives the last few days. Each week, I hear many heartbreaking stories from students. And in this season of my life, I also have many friends who are suffering and going through such difficult times. I’ve been consumed and overwhelmed with immense sadness because I can’t fix any of it. And I want to because I’m a fixer. This quote pretty much sums up how it feels when you’re compassionate or you have to use compassion in your job/everyday life:
Sometimes I find it challenging to separate myself from situations and circumstances around me. I feel responsible for all kinds of things that aren’t even remotely in the realm of something I can control. I feel like I should be able to do more, to help more, to be more. And that is where the self-doubt, and emptiness come in.
I see a connection between the feelings of compassion and the feelings that are experienced by a writer. in developing and creating characters, we have many of the same emotions. And we are bound to others through our words, and become completely vulnerable as we lay out all of our hopes, and dreams, and feelings on the pages of a book. And we wait to be accepted or rejected by our audience. It’s almost impossible not to take comments, criticisms, and suggestions personally. Because we are so close to it. Our books and words are an extension of us. Our alter-ego. Our child.
Being creative and having a story to tell might seem great, but at times it’s a curse more than a blessing. It’s hard to deal with the bursts of creativity, as well as the exhaustion that comes with the many hours of writing. There’s moments of beauty, and then moments that are gut-wrenching, when you doubt yourself, your ability, and your purpose. And then there’s the whole idea of perfection, or imperfection.
I remember when I was in the 7th grade. I was in a public speaking class (speech) and we had the assignment to write a story about anything, but the main character had to be a vegetable. The task was to not only create a story, but to read it in front of the class–that’s where the “speech” part came in. I worked for an hour or so on the project, and couldn’t come up with anything better than “Ruta Rutabaga.” I finally wrote some lame story, and started getting ready for bed. I actually went to bed, but couldn’t sleep, because my story wasn’t good enough. I remember having a slight melt-down at the kitchen table, because I thought I could do better. But no ideas were coming. And I was freaking out because it was already past my bedtime. My parents were doing those “what are we going to do?” glances at each other. I was thumbing through some mail that was on the table, and one of the “junk” pieces had something about ordering 8 track tapes on it. And then it hit me! I could write about the Grand Ol’ Okra! And from that idea, came all my characters. Minnie Pea, Buck Onion, Tanya Turnip, Cornway Twitty. I’m sure you get it by now. I just wrote about the singers and the songs they would sing. Once I had the idea, the rest was easy. I wrote and wrote, and at 10:30, an hour and a half after my bedtime, I was finished. And I felt like it was worthy of being presented in front of a class of 7th graders, who couldn’t have cared less.
It’s hard to ever feel that what you say really matters or is good enough. Of course it matters to you, but in the big scheme of things, does it matter to anyone else? Does it make them think, or laugh, or cry, or smile? I wonder this all the time, and I honestly worry the same about my podcast. After writing A Southern Girl Re-Belles, I have learned one thing. I have done my best. I can’t do anything more. I honestly put everything I had into the book, and that is where I find my peace.
So here is my big confession: As a writer, I hate to admit this, but I haven’t been reading very much over the past few years. I know you are probably aghast, as you should be! There is no excuse, but I will give you my reason for this, whether it’s intentional or not. When I write, I want it to be real. I want it to be my words. I want my words to sound like something I would say.
When I was writing my first book, I remember reading something and thinking, “Wow! That is so good! Why can’t I write like that?” ….and then it began. I started doubting my own work. I began asking myself these questions:
“Will it be good enough?”
“Who will want to read this stuff?”
“Why should I even bother? I haven’t had any formal training.”
And the list of other questions and self-doubt could fill several pages. Instead of reading what that author had so eloquently written, I began comparing it to my writing style. And the two couldn’t have been more different. Instead of enjoying what I read, I let the words make me feel like I was less of a writer, and in a way, let myself become envious of that author’s ability. I even tried writing something similar, but of course, failed miserably, because it wasn’t authentic. It was fake and I was an imposter and a fraud.
I have been failing miserably on the “joy” scale lately. I’ve been filled with self-doubt. I’m questioning so many things about my book, A Southern Girl Re-Belles. I’m worried some may be offended by it. I’m worried about what others will think. And it has taken ALL the joy away from a project that I have POURED my HEART and SOUL into. And I realized what I’d been missing. In all my hurry, and worry, and re-writing, and working, and planning, and living, I forgot to be thankful–thankful that I have been given an amazing gift that I can use in so many ways! And in my lack of thankfulness, I had missed the blessing and the joys that were right in front of me! What if Theodore Roosevelt had given up and wallowed around in his grief? What if he had decided that his life was over? That he had nothing else to do. In the depths of his despair, he moved forward, and discovered not only new lands, but a new life. A new mindset. He remarried, and dedicated the rest of his life to public service. And it was in all the overcoming that he found joy.
I heard Roosevelt’s quote today on the radio…CRAZY. Because I had just been thinking about that, and then there it was! Again, that’s not a coincidence. And it’s not a coincidence that it goes right along with another concept that I’ve heard twice over the last couple of weeks. It has to do with the idea gratitude (that being thankful even in the bad times) is essential in seeing all of God’s grace. WOW! That hit me in the face! It’s not saying that God only gives you grace when you’re thankful. It’s quite the contrary! We miss seeing God’s grace when we’re in the midst of our doom and gloom, and our pity-parties. But when we can be gracious, and thankful, and joyful, even in the saddest, darkest, most trying times of our life, we will see ALL the grace God is dishing out. Think about that for a second. I wonder how many things I’ve missed out on because I was letting something or someone steal my joy?
So now, after possibly seeming to be enlightened, I will bring it all down to earth with my completely shallow, self-absorbed line of thinking. I have been in a rut lately. Partially because I’ve had all this yucky congestion, along with the cold/rainy weather and time change. All of it has worked against my work-out schedule. And when I don’t get up and exercise, my days usually aren’t as good or positive. So, I’ve basically felt like a sloth. I’ve had a week of bad hair days, and a tiny bump on my nose, and I just look tired and mousy. Several years ago I read a book by Mary Pierce entitled, When Did I Stop Being Barbie and Become Mrs. Potato Head? That’s how I’ve been feeling. Except, I didn’t even start out as Barbie.
Aging is hard. In addition to changes in appearance, there are a few aches and pains here and there. And things just seem harder, or maybe it’s just that I don’t care about getting everything done like I once did. Whatever it is, I just haven’t been feeling it. So imagine the blow that my self-esteem took when a 7th grade boy gave me what he thought was a compliment, when he said, “You know Mrs. Keith. You could be my babushka.” My mouth dropped open, because I may be Mrs. Potato Head, but I know the definition of that word! Realizing my shock, he asked, “Do you know what that word means?” And I responded with a flat, disheartened response of, “Grandmother.” Thinking it couldn’t possibly get worse, the student then said, “Yea. Old lady or grandmother.” I’m surprised that there wasn’t blood on the floor from the dagger that pierced my heart. On a day when I was feeling EXTRA FRUMPY, I had just been called a grandmother and an OLD LADY!!! As I watched my self-esteem fly away, the student added, “You’re always so nice. That’s why I think of you as a babushka.” And then I felt really, really shallow. To this student, it was the highest compliment. And when I think about how I felt about my own grandmothers, I am all at once most pleased to be considered that kind of nice. Just call me Babs for short.
And there it was! In the midst of the bad, there was some good. And in EVERY situation, there is good. And in everything, there is something to be thankful for. While I await the release of my book, I will be working on toughening up my thin skin. I know there will be critics and some won’t like it at all, and some won’t give it a chance, and most people won’t even know about it or will not be interested in spending money on it. And all that’s okay. Because when it’s all said and done, I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I have learned so much from the characters and the story. And when I stop, and rest, and get quiet, I see and experience the feeling of complete and utter joy. I’ve been given a gift to share, and in that I have been blessed a thousand times over.
So next week, I plan on sharing about how life imitates art, or is it the other way around? Does art imitate life? I will be sharing more about my beautifully flawed character, Abigail Winchester, and her journey to redemption. Of course, it will all be very evasive, and cloaked in mystery, as to not give anything away. All this babbling and rambling was necessary, because I’m going to be discussing how we steal people’s joy, and judge others, and have compassion for some, but disdain for others. All based on what we THINK we know about someone.
I hope your week has been filled with both struggles and joy, because that means you’re living a full life with the depth of all emotions. To know true joy, you must also know true sorrow. As for me, I’m going to embrace it all! Forget being Barbie! I’ll be living my best life as a babushka Mrs. Potato Head.
Until next time…