December 22, 2001
 

 

Creative Roadblocks
by Judy Alexander

As an aspiring fiction writer who has faced rejection again and again, I’ve been able to persevere because I’ve learned that a roadblock is something to climb over, go around, or tunnel under. After years of stubbornly pushing forward, I’d almost forgotten that a roadblock can be a warning that the road ahead is treacherous and that another route should be found.

I took a five-day trip last February to my aunt’s farm in Southwest Nebraska, to do research for a novel. A thick rope of nostalgia ties me to the place, strung from my home in Southern California across the desert and the Rockies during summer family vacations: those kid-crammed stationwagon drives with Play-Doh matted hair and melted-crayon-stained shorts. In Nebraska, I was free of my younger brothers, who upon release from the car went native and hunted jackrabbits and rattlesnakes and tried vainly to torment red ants without retribution. I spent entire vacations with two cousins who shared my love of horses. We rode up and down canyons and across fallow fields and along dirt roads, returning to the farmhouse only for Schwan’s ice cream bars.

Now, as a middle-aged adult, even though it was the middle of February, I still loved the place. I slept in the historic farmhouse, in the same bedroom where my dad was born. After a few days of interviewing oldtimers, I became convinced that it wasn’t only my novel’s fictitious main character who should move from congested Orange County to sparsely populated Southwest Nebraska: I could do the same.

On my way home, I phoned my husband from a pay phone in the airport, across from the Omaha Steaks kiosk. I told him we could move in August. We could lease out our house for one year, enroll our 11-year-old in the local public school where only six or seven other students vie for the teacher’s attention, and help him raise a 4-H steer. I could research my novel, maybe work for my business client via telephone and email, and buy a horse. My husband, good with his hands, could piece together a handyman/truck driver income.


My husband laughed and told me to come home. A few weeks later, he was no longer laughing. I sent my younger son and husband on a spring break drive so that they could see for themselves the beckoning open spaces of rural Nebraska – the rolling fields, the miles of pasture, the huge canopy of sky. Upon return, the guys admitted they’d enjoyed their father-son vacation, but said they’d missed civilized California. They talked of Nebraska mud so deep they couldn’t navigate the dirt roads to visit a cousin two miles away – they’d had to back down a hill they could only partially ascend, while mud chunks churned up by the car’s back wheels flung up over the roof and landed on the windshield.

But still I wouldn’t give up. As an artist, I felt obligated to feed my creative, adventurous impulses. Some friends sided with my husband: they could understand a need for change, but how could that urge have anything to do with Nebraska? I argued that gumbo mud, blowing dirt, Frisbee hail, withering drought, grasshopper plagues, and tornado warnings would be as exotic for a California city slicker like me as a palm tree would be for residents of North Platte or McCook.

Maybe my family needed a sign from God. I suggested breakfast prayer. For a week, we prayed like this:
Me: Dear Lord, you know that I think the time is right for our family to try a new life. And you know that I think that you are leading us to Nebraska. Please give us a sense of peace about this move.

Husband: Dear Lord, give me strength. Your will be done.
Young son: God, if you love me, do NOT send me to Nebraska. Repeat, do NOT send me away.

By this time, I was becoming stubborn. I felt that I’d earned my time off. I’m an artist by nature who had nonetheless led an (almost) conventional life: I worked hard to provide a stable home life when my older son went through his rocky teen years, and I’d stayed with my corporate job (albeit only part-time) for five years. Now, with my teen launched into college, I was feeling lighter and freer. I was regaining my emotional strength and a sense of adventure.

But, the morning family prayers were still two against one. My college son refused to cast a vote, saying he’d already left home.

Then, before I could win the family members over to my way of thinking, they all seemed to collapse: my older son got into some trouble at the college; my husband avoided me and became sarcastic when cornered; my younger son locked himself in the bathroom one night and refused to come out.


At the very time of my life when I felt the need to steam out to sea and dock in new harbors, my husband and sons were begging me to be the family anchor and stay in the homeport. I struggled, torn between my own needs and theirs. In continuing to consider a move to Nebraska, was I being persistent in the face of adversity, or throwing a temper tantrum? Was I wisely pursuing an environment that would nurture my writing talents, or was I being egocentric?


My husband offered me a ladder over the roadblock. “Go ahead and move to Nebraska to research your novel; stay as long as you need to. I’ll take care of the kids and the house.”


When given permission to leave (albeit alone), I had to admit to myself that my strong will might be leading me into a life I didn’t want. Yes, I was disappointed in my stick-in-the-mud husband and kids, but would I be happy with myself if I jettisoned them in California and took off on a year-long sabbatical? Had I worked so hard at marriage and motherhood, just to abandon them for my art? I finally decided that since I DO want this marriage and I DO want these two children, it was time to work less on writing and more on relationships.

But my emotions didn’t catch up immediately with my rational decision. I mourned for my fruitless enthusiasm. I cried over the Nebraska file I’d started, with a tab for every area of life that would be new: house, job, school. I ached for the idealistic, impulsive me that was being put back into the harness of daily living.

I was resigned.

I turned to a book about faith written by Catherine Marshall. I read, “Acceptance is creative, resignation sterile.” I’d felt that heeding a roadblock meant defeat. I’d never before considered the possibility that accepting a roadblock could be creative.

How could I turn what felt like a setback into something imaginative? If it was the wide open spaces of Nebraska that had called out to my soul, maybe I could create more space in my California life. I decided to keep the cardboard boxes I’d bought in anticipation of my move and use them to sort though drawers and closets. I gathered items for my college son’s move to a new apartment and I held a garage sale. Since the livestock of rural Nebraska had called out to me, I attended a local 4-H steer show at a local high school (I hadn’t realized that we even had 4-H in the city) and I signed up for horseback riding lessons. Because the farmhouse had fed my nostalgia for the past, I looked at my own older home and began thinking about paint and furniture to bring out an historic feel. For novel research, I sought out oldtimers at church and in the neighborhood who remembered when this metropolis had been a farming community.

Now my younger son is attending art classes and doing well at school; I’ve been on hand to help my college son weather a wrist surgery and breakup with his girlfriend; and my husband is happily volunteering as a handyman at our church, which I’ve noticed is remarkably like a small Nebraska town. My own community and family feel again like my place and my people.

I haven’t totally given up on Nebraska – I’ll be back there for a weekend in November for my aunt’s 80th birthday. A roadblock doesn’t mean the road will be closed forever.


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Judy Alexander is an aspiring novelist, business writer, and webmaster living with her husband and two sons in California. To read more of her writing, visit www.judyalexander.com and www.literarychristian.com.

This essay was originally published on the Community Inc web site at:

http://www20.inetba.com/communityinc/111003.ivnu

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