Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Trail of Tears

May 11, 2009

I t is good to be home and return to routine. On my morning walk, I found myself quickly letting the pent up tears spill, revisiting in my mind much of the last two years, struggling with so much and wondering what to do with all of it. I have been in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains attending a writer’s conference. It was upbeat, informative, challenging and encouraging.

As I met new people, the routine follow-up question was asked, “What do you write?” I experimented with safe answers such as “I write non-fiction –the daily life kind of stuff – gardening, relationships, personal struggle”. Or “I write memoir”. That sounded vague enough to avoid telling my painful story. Or, if I was really feeling honest and safe, I said, “I have written a personal journal about the death of my daughter.” For the most part, I kept the tears in check. I tried to act professional. I even had business cards printed and exchanged them with other writers. It all felt so grown-up – like I knew what I was doing. Maybe I would write a book, but first I had to be able to talk about it without crying. Agents and publishers don’t keep tissues on their desks like grief counselors. It is a true story that I still find hard to believe– a story in which I still do not want to be the narrator.

The drive to Asheville is pretty spectacular. Once you get out of Atlanta, you head north to the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Then as you wind further north, there you are in the midst of misty green. As I returned home through those magnificent mountains with foggy thoughts of my own mountains to climb as a writer, I thought of the Cherokee nation, forced against their will to leave the land they loved and to traverse through famine and hardship to some unknown territory. The journey itself became known as "The Trail of Tears" or, as a direct translation from Cherokee, "The Trail Where They Cried” In one of the saddest episodes of our country’s history where over 4000 people died, lives were torn apart, displaced and left to their tears on a trail to uncertainty. (This is me, I thought.) There is a legend that says an Indian chief prayed for comfort for the grieving mothers who were losing their children to death and starvation. Following his prayer, a white rose began to spring up every time a tear fell to the earth and supposedly to this day the Cherokee Rose, my very own Georgia state flower, still blooms along the Trail of Tears - life and beauty rising out of pain and sorrow.

Each of us has our own trail of tears. If you tell me you do not, I will not believe you. All who are in touch with life have been displaced by something– emotionally, physically, socially, and spiritually. We have been forced to travel a trail of uncertainty. And the legend rings true - when tears are spilled and prayers are offered, something good happens in the midst of sorrow. I love this folklore image of tears bringing forth a flower on the road of sadness. How can good come from such pain, we continue to ask and ask. One thing I learned at the writers’ conference was that everyone has a story to tell. Some are true and some are imagined. But all good stories should offer some kind of reconciliation to the reader. Name the problem and then offer a solution. Change the reader.

The Cherokee tribe did not get to the Oklahoma territory overnight. There was no express route dotted with five star hotels and Starbucks, but they had a chief who sought a higher source for help. And following the little signs of life along the way that bloomed encouragement, they stuck with their journey, learned new ways to live, and told their story to their children with memories of life past and hope for the new territory to come. I’ll be looking for those signs of life.

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