As I was getting my hair cut this week, my hair dresser, Susan, told me that her favorite Uncle John was doing poorly and was now living in the Senior Care Center downtown. Susan is an “Old Timer,” she and her parents born and raised in this deep valley off the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Her father, who was in his eighties, recently died. Her uncle, her father’s sister’s husband, was also an Old Timer, raised not far from here in a valley that stretches along the California/Nevada border.
Susan described her uncle was a man of few words, but said that the last time she visited, he told her the story of the first time he drove the cattle by himself from his family’s ranch in Fish Lake Valley to the town of Big Pine, just south of here. The first day, John’s father accompanied him, driving the cattle west from the ranch, but at night fall, he left John on his own with the dogs, the cattle, a few supplies, and his horse. For four more days and nights, young John pushed on, driving the cattle up the steep slopes and then down again, across the wide Deep Springs Valley before the final push over Westgaard Pass. Just before Big Pine the cattle stopped, refusing to cross the railroad tracks. Nothing John could do would coax them across those tracks, and it wasn’t until his father joined him later in the day, that they could get those cattle moving again.
Susan stopped snipping and looked at me in the mirror. “How old do you think he was?”
I shrugged, thinking maybe fourteen.
Susan laughed and whispered, “He was ten.”
“Ten?” I said.
She nodded, and as if she could read my mind as I thought of my nine-year-old daughter safely tucked away at school, she added, “I don’t even let my 10-year-old grandkids cross Main Street by themselves and here he was…” Her voice dwindled off and in our own private silences we thought like mothers, imagine all the terrible things that could have happened to young John during those four days and four nights.
I went home and told the story of young John to my husband.
“Ten?” he said incredulously.
I went to bed that night thinking of John, the boy who crossed the mountains, a route I have driven often on my way back and forth to Vegas to catch a flight. I thought a bit of old John who lay in the Care Center bent on dying some time soon. But unlike earlier in the afternoon, my thoughts didn’t stick on the “what ifs” of his travels. Instead, I imagine him by the fire at night, a little scared, but facing down the darkness bravely, pulling the dogs up close for comfort. I thought of him moving those cattle along, looking around the wide open space ringed with mountains, and him deciding right then and there that he was never going to live anywhere else. I could feel the small twang of relief John’s father felt when he rode over the crest and could see his son, hat waving, trying to drive those cattle across the tracks.
I write a blog for the local used bookstore in town, East Side Books. The owner gives me free rein to write about my love of books and make book recommendations. This week I wrote about Holiday Adult Fiction, a genre I didn’t even know existed until I stopped by the store and found Diane surrounded by piles of red and green covered paperbacks. Apparently, if you write pulp romance or mystery novels, you are required to produce a holiday themed book now and then.
Unfamiliar with romance authors, I needed to do a little research before I could write my recommendations. One of the authors I investigated was Deborah Macomber, an award-winning romance writer. To date, Macomber has over 130 million copies of her work in print, and is a frequent visitor to the New York Times bestseller list. Even if you are not a fan of the romance genre, you have to be impressed with the success and following of Macomber.
Especially when you learn that Macomber achieved this success despite the fact that she is dyslexic and has only a high school education. Regardless of those realities, Macomber wanted to be a writer, so she borrowed some money from the family budget, and rented a typewriter. After her four children were in bed each night, Macomber sat the kitchen table and wrote. For five years she wrote, sent out manuscripts, and received rejection slips.
But Macomber was undaunted. After years of rejection, she used a little savings and attended a romance writing conference. It was here that an editor from Harlequin tore her work apart in a public critique. Determined, Macomber sent the same manuscript to Silhouette Books, Harlequin’s rival, where it was accepted and published in 1984. Heartsong was the first romance novel to be reviewed by Publishers Weekly. Since then, Macomber has published over 150 more book titles.
I will probably never read a Macomber romance novel, but I will think of her. When my alarm sounds in the early morning hours, the windows still dark and my family sleeping, I will think of her and get up despite the chill in the house. I will light a candle and sit at my desk, snatching a few moments to spill my words onto the page.
My father taught African American History at a state college in Georgia for over 35 years. My mother worked for the Florida Department of Education during a time when they were introducing integration in the South. When asked to write an essay on Martin Luther for my confirmation class, I wrote an essay on Martin Luther King instead since he was the only Martin Luther I was familiar with.
I thought I knew quite a bit about the history of the South and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement until a short paragraph about Rosa Parks popped up in an email this week. I knew the story of the woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person: she was arrested and a transportation boycott followed which eventually gave way to a Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.
But I didn’t know the details. I didn’t know that it was on December 1, 55 years ago that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, which makes sense, because I image that she was tired, that she’d just cooked and cleaned and taken care of family over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend only to have to turn around and return to work on Monday. Her legs were tired and her feet hurt, and she did not have the energy to stand up one more time that day unless it was to get off that bus because she was home–not with the busy holiday season coming and no relief in sight. Rosa Parks might have been thinking about civil rights and how black are equal to whites in the eyes of God, but I think that at that moment she was just too damn tired to move, to do one more thing for one more person no matter how white their skin.
And I did not know that the boycott lasted for 382 days. For 382 days boycotters walked, biked, or rode horses to get to work. For over a year, in the chill of a southern winter and the oppressive summer humidity, citizens, mostly black, of Montgomery, Alabama honored that boycott. Churches across the country began campaigns to donate money and shoes to the boycotters because theirs were worn thin from the daily commute on foot. How many step were taken turning that year? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? How many steps did it take to open the eyes of the public to the fact that tired black women at the beginning of December with the whole month ahead, should not have to give up their seat to anyone.
These three stories offered themselves to me this week and reminded me of a quote by Marianne Williamson that says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”
I ask myself: Who am I not to be brave, to do more that I think I can? Who am I not to sleep with just the sky and solitude as a blanket, to use rejection and exhaustion as fuel, to walk until my soles wear thin because I believe in a purpose? Who am I not to be brave?
Williamson continues: “Your playing small does not serve the world…as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Who am I not to be brave?