First , I wanted to thank you guys. We now have seven reviews on Amazon! As I’ve said, when we get to twenty the algorithm treats the book differently, and with greater respect. Only thirteen to go!
There were only three things I wanted as a child: a family to love, martial expertise, and a writing career. That kind inside me is very happy: the adult part of me made the hard choices necessary to accomplish them. In LIFEWRITING terms, I told myself a “story” about a kid who grew up to be a writer, a martial artist, and an ecstatic father and husband.
And that “ecstatic” part is valuable..and costly. By opening my heart completely to Nicki and now Jason, there was cost involved: after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, Toni decided to leave California for the Northwest. I gave up my house, trashed my credit, and walked away from my career because there was simply no way that my daughter was growing up without her father there, every damned day.
I thought I’d be able to continue writing for Hollywood, but I was wrong. The meetings dried up. You have to BE there, or you’re out of the loop.
When I got back down to L.A. in 2005, I was eager to pick my career my agent Jonathan Westover gave me some horrid news: freelancers were no longer hired for television shows. It was all written by staff. And they didn’t hired anyone for staff over the age of forty.
I was thunderstruck, had never even CONSIDERED that I might have a problem. The terror of realizing I’d moved my family to one of the most expensive parts of the country with no direct means of earning a living hit like a bomb. Even worse…Jonathan RETIRED. The only person I trusted in Hollywood was gone.
What was I going to do? I used “Lifewriting” again, assumed that there was an answer and that I just couldn’t see it yet. Working backwards from a “story” with a happy ending, I saw that the “Road of Trials” was a “Machine” composed of certain actions, done every day, day after day: work, looking for work, meditation (to focus my mind and heart) and exercise.
Every day I also had to assess the situation and see if I could make my “map” of reality more accurate. Then…take another step. Take care of my family. Focus.Focus. USE my fear to create action. And slowly, gradually, I worked my way back out. Got a Dwayne McDuffie hired me to write a “Ben Ten: Alien Force” cartoon. Reggie Hudlin brought me in at BET to story edit Vin Diesel’s proposed HANNIBAL series. I kept working on books with Larry Niven. I wasn’t working on much of my own solo work: GREAT SKY WOMAN and SHADOW VALLEY had been INTENSELY personal books…and hadn’t done well. Great reviews, no sales. Another subject. But…it hurt. And it was FRIGHTENING.
An artist deals with emotions. That requires self-revelation. If you ever feel “the more honest I am, the worse I do” you are on the road to hell. That road stretched before me. I could resent my audience and the publishing industry, scream all sorts of predictable “isms” or I could pull up my Big Boy pants, remember that I CHOSE this career, this life…and soldier on.
So I found ways to fall in love with every project I got. Supported Tananarive every time a Hollywood producer or studio optioned or bought one of her projects (and the ego-hurt that that sometimes triggered…the “why her? Why not ME?” is another subject for another time. Another potential ego-trap) and even began to use my God-given skills at guiding people along the Path at the Moonview clinic, where an excellent panel of doctors and therapists dealing with what Tom Lehrer once referred to as “diseases of the rich” helped me develop what THEY called “The Barnes Technique” (!). It was here that I realized that what I was doing really did have therapeutic validity, and began to accept that aspect of myself more deeply.
No, I didn’t have a medical degree. But people who did were happy to have me as a part of their team. That…was a blessing.
After six years of pushing pushing pushing, very carefully taking one step after another, never letting my fear overwhelm me, things finally seemed to be heading in the right direction. Even better, Scott Sonnon and I had created TACFIT WARRIOR, which integrated some terrific body-mind teachings into an incremental program like nothing on the market. Huzzah!
And then…T’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and she NEEDED to move our family back to Atlanta to care for her. I saw utter disaster. Understand: I’d been working on a “life map” I’d created as a child. Work hard, keep going, keep learning, keep a positive attitude, never quit.
And it had worked. I had my family, I had the martial expertise, and I had my career…even if it was hanging by a thread. But I KNEW that if I moved again, it was over. OVER. The “map” that had sustained me from childhood, through Dark Night after Dark Night…would be irreparably broken.
But I knew something: I couldn’t put Jason in a No Man’s Land of a damaged marriage. And cancer didn’t care about my feelings. This was happening, and all I could do was react to that reality.
I went. But I could NOT do it for Tananarive. Even in the depths of what was real existential angst, I understood that if I did it “for her”, and the pain was as deep as I suspected it would be, it could damage our relationship. But not my relationship with Jason. There is NO LIMIT to what I would do for my children, barring only those things that would damage my soul.
I went. And it was just as bad as I thought. Not because of the intrinsic nature of the situation: Atlanta is a beautiful city. We had a beautiful house. But because it was the death of dreams. Literally, the “map” of my life that had existed since childhood was destroyed. I didn’t know who I was, or how I was going to survive. T, on the other hand, was dealing with horrible pain–losing her mother–but also basking in the cultural capital her parents had been building in the South for fifty years. She was appointed to the Endowed Chair of the Arts at Spellman College (ummm…formerly called the Cosby Chair, but we don’t talk about that any more…) and feted all over the area. At which events I was often introduced as “Mr. Due.”
This was not, in any way, shape or form what I had signed up for. And not what I was willing to accept from life.
I remember a point where I simply felt all was lost. Where I curled up on the floor, sobbing my eyes out. The voices in my head said that I had lost almost everything I really treasured in my life…
The Dark Night of the Soul, in living color. A voice whispered in my head: the hero always goes through this. The way out is the leap of faith…
But name of God, monsignor…faith in WHAT?
If you get quiet enough, you can escape the roar of the damaged ego, and remember that YOU ARE NOT THE VOICES IN YOUR HEAD. YOU ARE THE ONE LISTENING TO THE VOICES.
There was always a part of me that knew that the screaming was ego stuff. It was not real. But that ego had sustained me for decades, through horrible doubt and pain. It was THE LEGEND OF STEVE, who would overcome anything, everything, and Conquer.
And…it was dying. This was NOT the story I’d written as a child. That story did not end with me broken, living in ANYONE’S shadow, smiling as I was introduced as “Mr. Due.”
Was it? I had nothing…
Except, of course, that I was still writing, even if not as successfully as I’d hoped. Did I mention that “money” was never something that little kid inside me had asked for?
Except of course, that I still had my family. A son who needed me more than ever, every day. HIS life had been uprooted too. Had I forgotten? And I had a wife who knew that she had stretched our relationship to the breaking point, and prayed that I could see the need that had forced her hand. That she had a limited time to make a desperate decision: her mother only had about ten good months left. In that fine old phrase, it was going to be easier to get forgiveness than permission.
Except, of course (and did I forget to mention this?) that, um, Sijo Muhammad, my beloved karate instructor and in many ways the best and strongest man I’d ever known, had retired to a suburb of Atlanta…
Perspective is everything. I still didn’t have it, but I was beginning to glimpse a pattern. STRESS CREATES TUNNEL VISION. I just couldn’t see, but I could FEEL. There was a story. But…what was it?
Once upon a time there was a little boy who wanted to be strong, and tell stories, and be loved. Along the path he hit the greatest obstacle of his life…and conveniently, his greatest mentor was right there…almost as if it had always been intended to be…
Could that be a part of a story of glorious victory? Why, yes, it could.
While in Atlanta I’d connected with Steve Muhammad a bit, but not as much as I might have liked. His duties with the Nation took up a lot of his time. But I did sit down with him finally one day, and poured my heart out. All the pain, and the angst, and the broken dreams, and the sense of betrayal. All of it. And said that in the forty years I’d known him, he had never let me down. His values were crystal clear: God is #1, Family is #2, There is no number three.
That is what I counted on. His clarity. Help me, I said. Whatever you tell me, I’ll believe.
He looked at me and said “this is what you do, Steve. You go home, and tell her `sweetheart, there is no part of how we got here that I appreciate. And after your mom passes, we’re going to have some very serious conversations about how we move forward. But right now, what you need to know is: I love you, and I’ve got your back.'”
I listened to him, and something inside me screamed NOOOOO! That was NOT what I wanted to hear. But…but..I struggled to make sense of it. I had promised to hear and believe him. I TRUSTED him. And with steam coming out of my ears, I mulled it over, and then finally spoke.
“You’re telling me that in this (my left) hand, are all my reasons to be unhappy, and feel betrayed, or hurt, or damaged. And that they are real. And I can have them.”
He nodded “yes”.
“And in my right hand”–I raised it– “Are the qualities of mind and heart which, when I walked through the doors of your school forty years ago and said `I want to be a man like you’ I proclaimed I wished for myself. ..and that I cannot have both.”
“Yes,” he said quietly.
And right there, it was in front of me. THIS WAS MY STORY. My REAL story. I had only THOUGHT I knew was it was. THIS was the moment that the Hero chose.
What caused the pain was NOT the situation, but my judgement the situation did not match my assumed story pattern. And that this good and beautiful woman who needed me had done what she needed to do to honor the mother who had brought her into this world and given her everything…and that I hadn’t been strong enough to see it, and from my fear and weakness had made it all about me.
And I could do that. Have that ego-salve. Or I could let it go. Put my family–not just “Jason” but “Tananarive and Jason” –above anything but my soul itself–and embrace this new path. That I could CHOOSE to write a new story, with an even better ending than that ten year old boy who had watched his stories burn and made a promise to himself, a story that honored that boy, but also honored the values that obtain at life’s end:
Not “did I outsell everyone” but “Did I speak my truth, and have fun?”
Not “did I get the images that were in my head?” but “did I find out who I was?”
Not “did I have an easy life?” but “did I have an authentic life? Did I learn what was true?”
I went home. Took Tananarive by the hand. Looked her in the eyes. And saw in her eyes, both love and fear. She knew something had changed, but didn’t know what it was. And saw that my darling had taken a terrible gamble.
She had bet that I was the man I said I was. Who I had promised I was the day I got down on the floor and played with that baby in front of her, a direct hindbrain-to-hindbrain communication that said: “I am a man who loves children. Will do anything for my family. I may not be perfect, but if you will be my woman, I swear I will give you everything I have, without reservation, and I will do everything in my power to be sure you never regret your decision. Please. Stop. See me. If you are the woman I think you are…I’m the man you’ve been seeking.”
She had prayed that was who I was.
And dammit…she was right.
THAT was the story of Atlanta. The story of how Steve lost everything he thought he was, and discovered his reality. Great victory, at great price. All it cost me was the death of my dreams.
But…there are always new dreams. Better dreams. What is it we need to do? To live an adult life in alignment with both our childhood dreams and deathbed values. No life can be better than that. Do that, and no matter how hard things get, life cannot beat you.
That was a hell of a story, wasn’t it? Can you see the power of seeing your life as a story you are telling…and experiencing?
I had accepted the challenge, acted despite my fear, put one foot in front of the other (“the Machine” applied to life!) gone to my greatest ally, dealt with the “dark night” of realizing his advice was the end of my last hope, and had faith that if I followed that advice, I was losing the world but gaining heaven…
Except that I wasn’t dead yet. Nope, I sure wasn’t. Which meant that everything I did, everything I wrote, had the power of REAL leverage, based not on what a child thought the world was, but what the mature man had found it to be. And after making that decision…
Change my story. And changing my story changes my stories, if you grasp what I mean. For what it’s worth, TWELVE DAYS is the first book from this new phase of my life. I hope you like it.
I am the hero in the adventure of my lifetime. NO ONE gets to tell me what my story is.
Apparently, sometimes, not even me.
Sometimes, you just have to tell the best story you can, and then notice what reality is echoing back to you. Like a bat.
Flying blind, yeah…
But flying nonetheless.