When I started research for PURE GRIT—I wanted to know one thing. How did these women survive combat and prison camp? What kept them going for three long years never knowing if they would see their loved ones again? How did they keep hope alive?
I discovered the different nurses had various ways of keeping their spirits up and coping with the challenges that came on almost a daily basis. But one thing they all had in common was a greater purpose.
They were strong, independent, adventurous women, but they were also caregivers. Their mission was to treat the wounded and sick, to save lives if they could and to bestow comfort on the dying. When they were captured POW and separated from the wounded soldiers in their care, they set up a hospital and cared for civilians in the prison camp who needed medical attention.
This purpose helped sustain the women. Though weak from hunger and diseased from malnutrition, they got up each morning and reported for duty.
Army Nurse Eunice Young wrote in her diary, “Our chief concern is food. People are actually dying of starvation….Haven’t the energy to write much for days…but we have to keep going to take care of the others.”
In November 1944, Navy Nurse Edwina Todd wrote that the hospital staff worried because they no long had strength to push the gurney used to move patients. “…carpenters were no longer able to make coffins, the grave-diggers to dig graves, the nurses literally pulled themselves up the stairs…When you bent to rub a patient’s back you wondered if you could straighten up again. You fell down a couple of times en-route to and from work.”
Navy Nurse Margaret Nash said, “We kept busy all the time and we didn’t have time to think about ourselves.”
I’m not a caregiver type and I doubt I will face the hardship duty these women did. But I have learned from them. They’ve inspired me to give thought to my own purpose. Not just broad overarching ideals like “make the world a better place” or “be loving and kind.” These nurses got down to the nitty-gritty of their mission, dealing with bodily fluids, sores that wouldn’t heal, children that cried and begged for food, and at one point, rats chewing on the dead bodies no one was strong enough to bury.
Working on a tough revision pales in comparison. On the other hand, writing well means cultivating difficult habits, like confronting what others shy from. Being still in a world of cacophony. Seeing the brokenness in a human life and letting it touch me.
It’s no good comparing another’s purpose. Each of ours will bring enough challenge to last a lifetime. But knowing your particular purpose and believing it is meant for you, will help keep hope alive in the tough times.
The core themes of my writing delve into the qualities of human courage and resilience. My stories are often set amid historical events which have required people to reach inside and find depths of strength they never knew they had. We can look back dispassionately at the trials of history and see that people survive great suffering and go on to find meaning and joy in life.
But sometimes the story intertwines with our own lives. It reaches out, clutches us and yanks us unbidden into a heartbreaking stream of events. We bob along trying to regain our equilibrium, but up is down and down is up and it seems a real possibility that we will drown in our sorrow.
A week ago my sister's husband fell on the asphalt of a cul de sac and bumped his head and he's remained unconscious. As my sister goes through these days of uncertainty and suffering, her courage and resilience have amazed me. Filled with anxiety and facing the possible death of her husband she has stood at his bed in the critical care unit and spoken words of love and encouragement in a calm, strong voice. In private she has let go into weeping and raging, then walked into the next room and shown her four young children a face of normalcy, sitting with them to fill pages with bright colored drawings, taking them to release their energy at McDonald's Playland, helping them make their small painted handprints on a canvas surrounding Daddy's large handprint.
I do not want to need courage like this. It's easier if courage is some noble action far removed from everyday life. And yet time after time we see that courage is wrought in our own personal dark places. We let down our defenses, our need to be in control, and we accept that pain is as much of life as joy.
Tell me your stories of courage. Whether large or small, the instances when we find our way to the light serve as inspiration for others.
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It’s been one of those days when nothing went as planned. Come to think of it, it’s been one of those weeks. Just five days before my manuscript was due at the publisher, I discovered a new piece of research. This detail means the beginning of my book must be totally rewritten. I had carefully crafted the beginning to set the tone and conflict for the story. And I was really looking forward to being done with this draft.
I’m sure you’ve had days like that, when all your plans go awry, or something you’ve worked hard at falls apart. It’s life. We know it, but we don’t like it.
This time instead of jumping right back into work, I’m taking a breather. Look at this photo I took. I find it really amazing and beautiful seeing the crystals of frost coating every blade of grass, even the spider webs. Nature clears my head. Pause for a few minutes and enjoy my pictures of Jack Frost’s handiwork.
Life is beautiful. Tonight as I write this I am grateful for too many things to count. Thanks for stopping by and sharing a few moments with me. I'd love to hear what you do when your day falls apart. What? That's just me? Oh, well, humor me.
As the new year begins I settle on a slogan to help me form a positive habit over the next twelve months. For 2014 my slogan is a question. What would you do, Mary, if you weren't afraid?
I know this isn't an original thought. Do something everyday that scares you, is a similar quote I hear a lot attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. But often with common sayings we don’t pause to consider the meaning.
If I've stopped to think about these sentiments at all, I've discarded them out of hand. I’m not scared of anything. Okay, I am scared of snakes, but I can live with that, and I see no reason to delve into it or sign up for a snake handling class. My life is fine, thank you. I don’t need to sky dive or swim with sharks.
But what hit me this week is that the things we are most afraid of are not exotic feats of nerve. They are things very close to us. Things we encounter without straying from our daily routine.
What would you do today, Mary, if you weren't afraid?
It took less than three seconds for me to realize the thing I’m most afraid of right now is resuming work on my novel. I legitimately put it aside to work on a manuscript already under contract, which will be finished soon. Very soon there will be no reason not to open that novel document and begin revising.
Why is that scary? You might ask, isn't that what you do every day, Mary? Write stories?
It’s scary because it matters so much. There in lies the clue to discovering what scares you the most. I guarantee, if you’re honest, it’s those few things that matter most to us that generate our fears.
The scariest things of all are love and creativity. Unconditional love strips us naked. Funny thing, it’s scary whether you’re giving it or receiving it.
Love never stands still. By nature, love grows. Growth is change and love insists we grow along with it. What true thing would you say to your loved one if you weren't afraid of hurt feelings? How would you interact with your children if you had no fear for the future?
Out of love for yourself, what would you stop putting off, if you weren’t afraid?
Like love, creativity urges us to change, to shake up the status quo. If we don’t think about it we realize our natural inclination is to try to keep things as they are, to hold on for fear of losing what we have. This effort toward stagnation strangles love and creativity.
It’s amazing what we will do to stop creativity from blooming, to stop love from flourishing. Sometimes all it takes is turning on the TV or checking Facebook, but sometimes we go to elaborate lengths to thwart intimacy. For creativity is nothing if not intimacy with our very selves. The key to intimacy is vulnerability. Getting back to that being stripped naked—that’s what I’m afraid of. That’s what must happen if I’m to finish my novel.
Is it love or creativity that scares you most? What would you do today, if you weren't afraid? Come on...tell me I'm not alone in this.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories from history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
I also post here about my books and feature other authors and their books on compelling and important historical topics.
Occasionally, I share what makes me happy, pictures of my garden, recipes I've made, events I've attended, people I've met. I'm always happy to hear from readers, in the blog comments, by email or social media.