Excerpted from Chapter 33 of
The Journey, Book two of The Torn Trilogy
“Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are“
~Arthur Golden,Memoirs of a Geisha
Birth of the Book
The story of The Torn Trilogy
Hardships come in many types and can be addressed on many levels, for it is a brutal testing fire that challenges your character and inner worth, your emotional strength and fortitude and your True Grit. Hardship is the litmus of life that reveals the inner you. Each time you think things can’t get any worse, they do, but the lesson in the end is that you are left standing, or in some cases, kneeling or even flat on your face, but the important thing is that after the dust has settled, you are left-you remain, you survived as a clarified being.
I learned to become accustomed to the monthly strain of meeting the financial needs of my family, taking the stress in stride, and toughing up to the possibilities that things were definitely going to get worse for awhile. I prepared to ‘batten down the hatches’ in readiness for the financial storms ahead. I would eventually be evicted three times, have four car repossessions, experience law suits and garnishments, but we would continue to eat sleep and stay warm and dry with no deaths or loss of limb.
For the time being I was happy to be alive and well for each day as it came and that attitude would predominate my thinking for the rest of my life. I could and would dream and dream big, but I never would forget how to dream small, to be content to be full and safe and even if that failed, to be content to be alive, if that was the best I could manage for that day.
My uncle’s voice was one of the most powerful forces that I would ever know, as his running narrative of sage wisdom would inspire me for the entirety of my lifetime leave a permanent stamp upon the traces of life and tracks of time. My uncle’s voice would live on, even long after I died through the minds of my children. My uncle was a legend to me as I remembered the man who picked me up at the school bus stop covered in smut with all that he had owned and worked for gone up in smoke, yet he never complained, he just kept moving forward. The immortal words of Rudyard Kipling echoed in that moment “…watch the things you gave your life to broken” to only have to “build ‘em up with worn out tools”.
The example was one I would follow faithfully. If whatever it was did not kill me, then I would keep moving too and if it was torn down, I would stoop to build it up again.
In order to reach a level of growth, one has to arrive at the preceding level, much like climbing a mountain which for an adult is a step by step progression. It is a different matter with children who have yet to climb out of the Id of their psychic development and master the two Egos and it is yet another matter for children who have been frozen in their steps by traumatic obstacles. The level I was on as an adult was not the same for my children, so what was a dream for me was another possible way out for them, for all they wanted to do was just be children.
It was August in the mid south and the temperature was soaring to over 105 degrees each day, the only remedy for the heat was the comfort of our air conditioning and it went out too, even before the cutoff date for the lights.
I did like any ‘widow with fatherless children’ as the scriptural annotation went, and called the elders for help. I would have been glad for just a Mc Donald’s meal, but instead, I had a tie wearing suited threesome show up to deride me for my poor planning, inability to budget and the fact that I did not hoard up half a cow in my freezer for such hard times.
It seemed the wise men were unaware of a few basic principles, foremost was I had no money to buy the quarter cow and to budget, or to buy the freezer to keep the quarter of beef. In fact I had no money to pay the light bill in order to run the freezer, I and my children’s needs at that moment were raw and immediate.
I respected the elders immensely until that day when I saw through the transparency of their guilt projection and failure to offer a few cheap words of support and encouragement to a house full of dejected people. I listened with respect, but my anger was rising as I listened to several hours of browbeating before they got up to leave late that night.
My children were all still awake in the back rooms and too depressed to sleep by now. I suppose that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I saw ‘group think’ for what is really was, regardless of good intentions, when human kindness is placed second in order to rules and punishment, because peers dictate it to be so, ‘Group Think’ is then wrong, lost in a misguided set of mores. I lost the obedient reverence that I blindly followed until that day it all started to unravel and I challenged beliefs that I had held undisturbed for almost a quarter century. In that late evening visit that lasted into the night, my eyes were opened to see the forbidden, the nakedness of the emperor, the fact that men were mere men and nothing more. These men, who were elevated into positions of unchallenged trust, were basically good men but just as flawed as everyone else, subject to biases, prejudices and whose opinions were sometimes right and sometimes wrong. They were not infallible, the ‘elders’ were only men, who at that moment had no comprehension of what they were talking about.
One of the members of the group came back the next day to apologize for their ‘bullying’ of me and offer help. I greatly appreciated his kindness as he took it upon himself to help feed us until I returned to work, although he had a family of his own and limited finances, but his heart and conscious could not allow him to leave us totally abandoned. The two that lead the bullying by contrast had vast resources, but were able to close their hearts and minds without a second look. Sometimes empathy is hard for those who have never suffered in life. The lights were off the next day, so we had to cook on an outside barbeque grill, and since we had no refrigeration, the ‘elder’ whose heart redeemed him, had his wife take me to the store daily to buy a day’s ration of food. Although the kind man faltered in the beginning he did not falter in the end, when it counted and I will always be grateful for that great act of kindness on his part.
I went back to work for a few weeks before we were forced to vacate the house with a 30-day notice. Mikey took it upon himself to catch supper one evening. There was a huge catfish that lived in the pond by the house and Mikey caught him for supper, by wading out into the shallow pond to actually grab the big fish by hand and kill him onshore with a rock. Mikey my little hero. We had fried fish and rice for dinner while my son, Mikey held his head high with fisherman’s pride.
I suppose in a way it was good that this bad thing happened for it freed me from a lifetime of ‘group think’, or thinking that is established and controlled by an elect group, under the guise of being in your best interests. I would be determined to do my own thinking from then on, regardless of what label people would put upon me as a result. Even if I had to be an outcast for my independent thinking, I would gladly suffer the consequences for my freedom of mind and thought. Whether I sank or swam, it would be my own choice. The place of religion in my life had been very prominent and useful, for it served a purpose at a very fragile time, but the nature of its purpose had changed. I had transcended to a higher plane.
By some estimates, as many as five thousand religions and subdivisions among nineteen or so major religions exist in the world, and if you dig into the motivations of the adherents, a need to belong and be accepted is one of the strongest denominators. Religion is man’s version of what ‘god’ or ‘God’ meant, regardless of which god it may be for them. The Creator, the Life Giver, the Maker is a great force interpreted by many people in many different ways. Some must have many rules in order to feel they are safe and others abide by only a few. To some, the rules are their god and to others, God is God and they need no one to orchestrate the rules for them or interpret them. Deep within themselves they know and firmly believe in their spirit what is good and right, a very personal faith that remains unchallenged.
The culture we grow up in, shapes us and affects out perception of needs and it also affects what we chose to seek out in life as well guiding our motivation for doing so. It is what we use to pry our way into a social world until experience leads us in a different direction. Experience is a factor that cannot be under-rated because we see the world through what we personally know firsthand. Our experiences in life, quite often become our perceptions.
Many foes exist in our meager lifetimes that some privileged few fail to ever have to confront, due to the comforts and cushions that surround them from birth. Terrible things happen to both the rich and poor alike, as tragedy is no respecter of men, however the ‘terror of poverty’ as James Michener put it, is a force that is undeniably powerful, overwhelming and sometimes engulfing. Poverty will swallow you alive, taking every ounce of hope and dignity from those less endowed with the battle gear of life. Poverty kills just as surely as does guns and war, yet it is a true guerilla fighter, sneaking upon you, insidiously choking out energy and life force until you are dead and defeated inside. Poverty kills the soul, breaks the spirit and takes a noticeable toll upon any man, no matter how strong. Poverty kills quite literally when the health care needs of the chronic poor are put aside until it becomes a raging crisis. No one knows poverty like the poor. Especially those who are poor in a world of plenty. It is felt, you cannot explain how it feels to walk the isles of a grocery store needing, wanting and hungry and be denied purchase by the contents of your pocketbook. There is no look in a child’s eye so heartbreaking as the look of being denied the normal life when he and his parent walk when everyone else rides, when he is the only child in class without the fee for pictures on picture day or the only one left out when the class attends a play that costs nothing to most parents but a small fortune to a few. There is no hidden heartbreak as strong as that of the parent of that child. I have been that parent many days.
I was tired of being the financially powerless parent. I decried to myself that I would take action to change our lives no matter how long it took, that is after I reached a point of disequilibrium. Sometimes the bottom has to fall out before one will give up on the boat.
After the unfortunate rapid succession of tragedies and crises, I reached a desperate breaking point and got mad all over again over the injustice of our situation. I was doing everything that I knew to do and still things were rapidly going downhill in record-breaking time. I decided that I was tired of dealing helplessly with the financial strains and the emotional turmoil that were caused initially by Thomas. I would resort to desperate means. If I had to, I would sell our story since that was all we seemed to have of any value to the world at large. My righteous indignation would grow continuously over the next decade and so would my determination.
Ariel heard me verbally complaining about the injustice of the whole situation and vowing to write a book and the word ‘book’ caught her attention. Ariel was like a bulldog when she got an idea, so she claimed ownership of the book idea too.
‘We’ were going to write a book. Ariel became my taskmaster as we dealt with moving and the necessary working around the clock to meet the relatively huge costs that relocating would incur.
Before I could take the time to focus on writing, I had to first attend to the task of finding a home for us and creating a minimum of two month’s extra income within a month’s time, since it was the only way to get past the current utility debt and moving expenses. I was not certain exactly how, but I had to do it and I would. Late at night, I took my ledger of business connections that I had accumulated over the years and made a new list of by types of services. I learned that people do not do ‘favors’ when it is business, the motivation has to be some form of gain for them. I would have to offer some type of discount and convince the homeowners that they needed the service. The deal would have to be contingent upon immediacy and the idea they had something to gain from it. After I prioritized the list, with the usual prices, I proposed a discount if I could do the work on my time schedule, even adding bonus services as a reward to the customer. The key was the presentation done in person and timing. If a householder delayed an answer for more than a few seconds the deal was usually lost, so at the time they deliberated, at the moment of hesitation, I interjected the ‘bonus’ as a clincher to the deal. The work would be done quickly, which pleased the homeowner since I would do the work and be out of their routines. The bonus to me was instant pay upon completion. The drawback would be that I would have to work harder and faster for less money.
The sewing factory stopped the layoffs and started a period of overtime. Since I already had a packed work schedule at the sewing factory, the only time I could borrow from was evenings and weekends as well as having to sleep less. Who needs sleep anyway?
My financial distress happened during the cooling off period after the long hot summer. When it is extremely hot or cold, raining or snowing, there was almost no window work or carpet cleaning to be done. The beginning of fall was a peak period and that was the time of my emergency. Most homeowners plan ahead for the upcoming holidays and thus prefer to have the tedious work done before Thanksgiving begins. Homes with huge tall windows are magnets for ‘tar’ bugs and all the other debris from the hot summer rains, so I was usually welcomed this time of year. I proceeded with my plan and started scheduling weekends of work for the entire upcoming month as well as evening jobs.
Meanwhile, since the lay-off at the sewing factory had ended and I resumed working 50 to 60 hour weeks at the sewing plant, I arranged to have work to do from as early as six p.m. to as late as midnight. I cleaned a couple of huge homes that were vacated and sat empty for a while, in preparation for putting the homes on the market for sale. That accounted for almost enough to pay the gigantic light bill. All five of my children were enlisted to help me work. My oldest son helped with a particularly large home wherein both an eighteen-foot extension pole and a 12-foot ladder were needed to reach the thirty-foot high ceiling threshold.
I cleaned, and scrubbed everything from windows and carpets to greasy cook stoves with years of greasy buildup and my children helped with little or no complaint. My two daughters helped clean the cook stoves and appliances of the large homes and my small sons were expert at denuding floors of little spots in preparation for waxing.
Yard work was not beneath us either, as I and the two younger boys did a few yards in the evening as well. My children were never perfect as no children are, but they were extraordinarily helpful in a crisis. I never had to beg for their assistance when I really needed it- even the two smallest ones were willing to offer their best efforts before they were off to play. I seldom allowed the children to help as I did not want to overburden them, after all children are children not adults.
I had to find a way to most effectively use my efforts for maximum benefit so carpet cleaning was arranged for several jobs at once, so that I could rent the machine one time and capitalize off the profit. One of the local hardware stores had a professional cleaning machine with enough power to suck the floor from under the carpet, if need be. It was important to have a good brush system with the cleaning machine, as this one did. Fortunately for me, the homeowners could care less whether I owned the machinery or just rented it, as long as I got the job done. I not only got the jobs done, I did them well, and never once getting a complaint from the homeowner that my work was shoddy.
Although we were all in a serious dilemma, I rented movies as a reward for the children’s hard labor, ordered pizzas and bought ice cream for the weekends so that the children would not become overwrought with the enormity of our predicament. I had not yet found a house, but we were clearing away the utility situation. I could meet the entire first month and last month payment of rent out of one paycheck from the sewing factory, since we were back on production schedule again and the twenty to forty hours of overtime I received every two weeks were pretty good. I knew we were almost out of time, and I was dead tired, but we could see the finish line.
I located a house, and my children and I had someone take us to look at it. The house was large enough for us, with two central heating units, three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The master bedroom had a walk-in closet and a bath. In addition the house included a large living room and kitchen and a double garage. The monthly rent was rather low for the size and location of the house and I discovered during a hard rain later, the reason why. The roof needed repairs, so I climbed up on my trusty ladder with roofing compound and painted the holes liberally to temporarily hold off the weather. My roof repairs would hold good for at least a year or so.
The best thing about the house was the lovely view through the large back window into a wooded area, with a willow tree lined pond. The boys would once again have a domain to play in and I could have a view. The older couple, who owned the home, also owned several homes in that area, although they were becoming too old and sick to maintain them. The couple had built the homes with their own hands after the war and the man’s disgust with coming home from a war with no place to call their own, had become his motivation. He decided they would never want for a home again, so he and his wife built a whole slew of them.
It was so nice to have certain shelter again, this time, I could actually pay the rent. The treadmill was upped another notch. I decided that I would work until I dropped before I would see my children wonder where they would lay their heads at night.
Once we settled into our home, and our schedules, Ariel got her ‘whip’ out again and began to pressure me to get on the book. I am tired was no excuse, I was a superwoman, did I not know that? ‘Work slave!’ she might as well said, although she meant it in good way. Once I started writing, the words flowed so fast that it seemed they had been crammed in and were seeking release on their own, the book took on a life independent of me, much like walking a large and powerful dog that knows where it wants to go and pulls you along with it.
Within three months of making the vow of writing a book about our lives, I had completed the first handwritten draft of ‘Torn From the Inside Out’ in a series of spiral notebooks with Ariel pushing me nightly to write more.
“Mama, you have got to write more, you will never finish if you don’t- you have to Mama!” she implored of me no matter how tired I was and to ensure I had no excuses, she would cook and clean the kitchen. The book had become a personal drive of hers-to make me finish, to become my emotional cheerleader, with all the kids as an audience to her nightly readings.
As for me, I was driven to do many things, foremost of which was to make sure we survived financially and as a result, I lived in a constant state of exhaustion. In order to meet the huge financial demands of housing, clothing and feeding six people, I forced myself to literally work almost twenty out of twenty-four hours a day on some week days, starting the day off by arising at five o’clock A.M. in order to be at my workstation by six in the morning, and off for an hour or so of window cleaning or whatever I had arranged by six o’clock in the evening and to sleep by midnight. After beginning my ‘book’ I would visit with the kids when I arrived home and write until I could stay awake no longer, and Ariel would read to her siblings each night while I lay passed out in the middle of the living room floor with the tablet over my face or on my chest. I wrote rapidly by hand, simply telling the guts of the story with the intention of ‘cleaning’ it up later. It took about thirty or so days to get the basic story on paper and at first I thought the rough draft was a finished work, but as I backed away from it, I realized it was still a work in progress, in need of a voice-I needed to find my writer’s voice, the genuine ‘James Joyce’ flow of consciousness that was unique to me alone.
Eventually, with Ariel’s constant insistence I managed to obtain a Brother Word processor with an inkjet printer. Ariel pressured me to send off query letters to Agents, so I paid an exorbitant price for a current Writer’s Market in order to get the Agent’s requirements and addresses, after which I sent a mass of queries off to agents, and in short order I received a mass of rejection letters back, form letters sent by the assigned mail room workers who ran interference for the agencies. The common form letters that started with ‘Dear author’ comprised most of the responses with an occasional letter that addressed both my book title and myself by name, all stating the same bottom line ‘this is not what we are looking for’. I sent about one hundred query letters and it took almost two months to get them all back, two months of extended hope that we would achieve a fairy tale ending to our ordeal and a get a contract with a big agent followed by a big publisher. The standard book publishing procedure by the big houses was to issue an advance initially with due as the first printing of books sold. Since the big houses did not make small print runs the advances would automatically be substantial. The years of struggle could be over soon and it was this hope that inspired us, initially, until the inanimate book, Torn From the Inside Out took on a life of its own.
The children were all excited over the possibilities before us and we allowed ourselves to dream of positive outcomes as I made daily trips to the post office only to receive rejection after rejection. Most of the rejections were form letters, but a few were personalized with the disclaimer that although ‘your story sounds extraordinary but domestic violence does not sell well’. They were pigeon holing my entire memoir into a standardized genre that did not fit, not at all recognizing the originality. There was only one ‘Torn’ and I knew it—but they did not.
In the beginning, I had no idea how competitive the market was at that time, nor how the book publishing world worked. For example, I did not know that the literary market is not kindly disposed towards new authors, no matter how talented they may be. Businesses do not like to take risks when they can fill their coffers and line their pockets with the sure thing of a well-established author with a pre-determined audience. New authors are always risks until proven otherwise, so I would eventually be forced to embark upon a long and arduous struggle of recognition even after the completion of Torn. But then again, that was the typical way for me, the ‘uphill’ hard way. I was beginning to think that was the only way, I would begin to do as my aunt used to say and ‘jump the fence’ first, instead of using the gate to enter.
In the midst of my becoming accustomed to rejection letters, I opened one letter from a very large literary agency, prepared to read a ‘Dear Author’ response and to my delightful surprise it began “Dear Ms. Niles” followed by a request for my entire manuscript, I first investigated the company and the authors they represented and discovered this was a highly reputable agency. This might be it. I gathered the children and informed them, in hopes of there being a contract. We all sat in the living room, the three oldest on the couch, and the two younger boys sitting on their knees. Each one was hoping for good news and had lights in their eyes. Although we were all excited, it was Ariel who seemed to own the moment, it was her idea after all to send the letters to agents. Since I sent the query letters off before putting Torn to type, we had only the handwritten version, therefore it became an urgent matter to complete Torn as fast as humanly possible.
Ariel went to school days and typed until two a.m. many nights, her deft fingers flying, as her typing was much more rapid than my slow hen pecks at that time. With both of us using every spare minute to complete Torn and submit it to the agent, it was done within a few weeks, all one hundred and sixty seven pages. Torn was truly an infant of a book in every way, but to us it was finished.
The agency required a 30 day evaluation before a contract could be approved. At the end of the thirty days, we received a Federal express packet from the agency. Upon sight of the packet that concealed what our futures could soon be, we were expectant beyond words. I opened it will all eyes on me. It was a rejection letter with sincerest apologies and encouragement to not give up, as the message itself was astounding, the entire staff thought so. Thanks a lot, I though bitterly. We were all deflated. The instant success was not to be after all, thus began the series of failures and defeats that make a dream. I just needed to toughen up and keep climbing. At that time, it looked as though it was Mt. Everest during a blizzard that I was climbing. With no gear.
I sent off another series of query letters and one excited offer from a small agent by the name of “Julia C” came in. I submitted the first three chapters, and then she requested the entire manuscript. The agent read every word of the entire manuscript as was obvious from her multitude of red pen marks on the returned copy. She wrote that she ‘loved the story-it was amazing’- but the writing lacked the emotional appeal to draw her in’. Well, that got my blood boiling, did not ‘pull her in’ she said, ‘Did not pull her in’?? This was my painful life, how could it not pull her in? I first became irate at her honest criticism and then over several days time as I mulled over her words and realized she was truly tying to help me, I cooled off and took a realistic view. I decided that if she wanted to be ‘pulled in’, I would pull her in all right. Whatever the heck ‘draw me in’ meant—I would do it.
My uncle had always said of me that I was competitive and contrary, that if you said that I couldn’t do a thing, then I would do it just to prove you wrong. His assessment of me was quite accurate. I decided to take it upon myself to study the masters, the writers of classics, and the timeless literary works of art that people of all generations read and never tire of. For the next several years, I collected and read most of the classics, the Nobel Prize winners, the Pulitzer winners and the conventional great writers of our modern day. I would find their secrets and I would master the emotional appeal, I would get into their heads, find their focus and I would become my own ‘master’ writer. That particular agent had ‘ticked me off’, I had been hit with the white glove, it was time for a duel fair and square, and I planned to win and still be standing in the end.
I suppose that I should have thanked the agent for her useful words and I had made a mental note to do so on one of my more humble days in the near future, that is, if I did not forget.
I decided that if I wanted to be the best, I needed meet the greatest masters of literary history, I needed to read the best, break them down and digest them. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck which I first read when I was twelve, I reread. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky; Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King, A Time to Kill, by John Grisham as well as the writings of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolff, Chenua Achebe, and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as well as hundreds of other books by various authors, became my late night reading fodder over the years, making a lasting impression upon me. The timeless classics were like no other books, regardless of the era and time they were written in, one never grew tired of reading them. The authors held a firm grasp of the stuff of life and they used it to masterfully transfer the blood and tears of life into smooth flowing ink upon parchment and paper.
I could easily read a three hundred page book in a few hours time and it was a great de-stressor. I became intoxicated off the minds of great writers and inflamed with their passions. I saw what they saw and thought their thoughts, and all in the few hours between wake and sleep at the end of long, exhaustive days of hard work. Reading was my great escape, it was a journey that was cheap and as nigh to being free with only the power of my mind, as one could get. I became reacquainted with one of my favorite means of travel- the literary time machine- the book. The adventures available through reading were there to be taken like vacations at any time for just the cost of a used book. Needless to say I went on many such ‘vacations’ for the mere cost of a dime or quarter at the local thrift shop or at garage sales.
I had loved to read during the entirety of my childhood and when I met Thomas, I lost a lot of me, including my love of the arts. The painting, running, the gymnastics and the reading were all diminished over the tortuous decade with Thomas. Even though things were getting tough and would get more difficult for us, I found parts of me along the way that I desperately needed, to complete my journey. I continued to pick up the pieces of me and reclaim myself, the parts I would use to build a better and greater me with.
The first draft of ‘Torn’ was pretty good, but like comparing an infant to a man, it was not the book it grew to be over the years, because ‘the author (me) had not finished her development’ and psychological evolution yet, however the author did not yet know her literary limitations and thus she thought that ‘Torn’ was all grown up and ready for the world, when in fact, it was not time. Torn was a babe as books go, therefore time was essential to her development and maturity. I sent the manuscript off repeatedly in its unfinished state like a mother trying to force her toddler to walk too soon. And repeatedly it stumbled and fell as it would, until its growth would be complete.
My children were proud of Torn, and their mother the author of it, so it was mailed with all our hopes attached to it, our hopes of success and riches which we thought lingered around the corner. The entire family nurtured positive ambitions at first, but the rejections from literary agents and publishing houses came day after day and continued to come over the years, taking the hope of most of the family away. There were the die-hards among us, I would never give up regardless, and two of my children never lost confidence that Torn was a book to be reckoned with, particularly Ariel at first. Time and the distresses of life can wring the hope and ambition of out you like wringing out a rag, but fortunately neither time nor distress wrung all of the life out of us. I am proud to say, my children never lost hope completely, at different points in time, they just got tired of waiting. Mikey was one of the last of the children to carry the torch of confidence for Torn and to advocate ardently and relentlessly for its success, which was a stance he took after reading Torn twice.
So the birth of Torn From the Inside Out was amidst the tragedies and chaos of our own lives, bred during a storm of stress and conflict as is fitting for such a book about such a life as ours. Torn developed and grew over the years, and as I gained education and experience, I added it to Torn by way of depth, breadth and insight. Torn would become a symbol of my mission and it would grow along with me.
I had no idea that it would be almost ten years before Torn From the Inside Out, the first of the Torn Trilogy made it to print, not as an infant any longer but as a ‘man’ among books, ready to stand or fall on its own. I certainly never imagined that Torn would take on a life of its own and wrench from me two sibling books over the following decade, after its own birth.
This is the end of Chaplet 8
Excerpted from The Journey: Book Two of Torn Trilogy