by Beverly Donofrio
I once attended an African–American Baptist church, where the service lasted two–and–half–hours, there was lots of singing and dancing–in–place, and enough spirit to lift you out of the clouds and make you sunny. The preacher said something I have always remembered, which is a cliché but it was the first time I’d heard it: “Turn those potholes to stepping stones.”
Another saying I like is you must dance with life, which is the same, I believe, as saying you must dance with God. I once took a tango workshop, where I, who consider myself a pretty darned good dancer, was terrible. The woman is supposed to surrender completely, literally leaning her chest into her partner’s, then allowing herself to be moved around like a tightly strung rag doll. It was an exercise in trust, and even though I wanted more than anything at that moment to do this, I couldn’t. I was simply incapable.
Sometimes we are like that with God. And sometimes it takes tripping and falling flat on your face before you realize that you forgot you were even dancing. You have to actually trip in those potholes before they can become steppingstones; it is through suffering we surrender and in surrendering that we develop trust—and ultimately learn the dance.
When I was struggling to become a writer, God was not a conscious player. I’d given God up in adolescence because I didn’t like or trust a God that kept score, judged even my thoughts, punished sometimes for no reason and never gave me anything I asked for. So, I said good riddance, especially after I got pregnant in high school and interpreted it as God’s punishment for having sex out of wedlock.
I believed I was stuck forever—as young people do—when all I’d ever wanted was to leave town and go to college. Instead, I left town metaphorically on the vehicle of drugs. This was the sixties. I was wild, my father was a cop, I was arrested for possession of marijuana with intent to sell—it wasn’t my pot, just my house—and was named the “Leader of a Drug Ring” on the front page of the town newspaper. After I was given a suspended sentence and two years probation, I became so depressed that one night I began swallowing aspirins two at a time to kill myself. I stopped after twenty, unable to desert my son. Instead, I cried all night, and then in the morning, called the local psychiatric clinic. In our first session, my therapist said, “You’re a bright young woman; you should be in college.” I had a child, no money, no job, no car to get me to a job, and no day care if I did have a job and a car to get me there. Yet with my therapist’s help we finagled a way to get me to community college.
Pregnant, trapped, arrested, suicidal, turned into the answer to my prayers: college.
From community college I got a scholarship to Wesleyan University, and as soon as I graduated I headed for New York City to become a writer. Meanwhile I worked at part–time jobs, mainly typing and nude modeling for art classes, to put food on the table and not tax my brain with a real job, which would distract me from the great literature I was not producing. I was exhausted, drinking too much, depressed again, and sleeping sometimes for sixteen hours a day. Until one evening, racing to my typing job, I looked one way on a two–way street, stepped into the street, heard the blare of a horn, looked the other way and saw the glare of headlights close enough to touch. I was hit by the car, flew into the air and landed broken on the asphalt: Pothole.
Laid up with no health insurance, unable to go to my jobs, and terrified about money, I began to write (I now had plenty of time) as though my life depended on it. One day I saw in the Village Voice an ad, which had probably been there every week but I’d never noticed it, for the Columbia University Creative Writing Program. If I were accepted not only would I have deadlines and guidance but my son and I would have health insurance. I wrote and submitted three short stories, was accepted, took out loans enough to float a small nation, and one year after I’d been hit by the car, I sat with a group of my peers in classes taught by writers I had not only read but admired.
I was working thirty hours a week typing, however, and I had to take an extra semester to finish my thesis, which was 150 pages of a novel. I handed in what was basically a rough draft of Riding in Cars with Boys, my first book, and Judith Rossner, who’d written the very popular Waiting for Mr. Goodbar, failed me in a one–page, single–spaced diatribe that accused me of creating “cardboard cut–out characters that went from one implausible situation to the next as though in a TV sitcom.” I had written truly about my life and called it fiction, so she was wrong at least about the “implausible situations.” But the first line of her evaluation hit the nail on the head, “Beverly Donofrio’s energy has been mistaken for talent.”
I was an imposter, a poser with dreams way bigger than my gifts. Certain I’d never be able to write another word, I cried for weeks, and when the tears finally stopped, I quit my dream and took a “real job,” as a copy editor at a start–up magazine called Manhattan, inc., a national monthly very much of its time—the early ‘80s—that profiled and lionized fat cat businessmen. After a few months of editing others’ writing, I decided that I could write as well as at least some of those writers and began writing my own, short, articles, which the magazine published. Then when I was stupid enough to publish an article in a rival magazine, I was fired. Being fired felt like being kicked off the bus and watching it depart as your girl–scout friends merrily sing, “Make new friends, but keep the old…” I cried for a couple of weeks that time, too.
But I now had experience and a few connections and found that I could freelance edit at other magazines, while leaving myself much more time for writing. And so, I wrote a memoir piece for the Village Voice, about being an Italian–American feminist hippie who gets arrested by her father the cop, and my mentor, Richard Price, from Columbia saw it. He called and told me to call his agent. I did, and she helped me get a contract to write Riding in Cars with Boys, an admittedly very rough 150 pages of which disguised as fiction had flunked graduate school.
Thesis flunked, I get published. Fired from job, I win a contract to write a book.
I could go on, but it would be redundant.
Again and again what first seemed like disaster became a blessing. Hope turned to disappointment and despair became hope realized. Sometimes we have to fall flat on our faces before things start to look up. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “We are all of us lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
We Christians are familiar with how suffering and death lead to new and more abundant life. But I’m not convinced that at the moment it happens, one can know absolutely that the disappointment, the despair, the dashed hopes, ruined dreams will turn out all right and often in a way we could never have imagined. Because such faith would not allow for suffering, and it is in our pain that the seeds of hope lie in the darkness. It is our wintertime, which is necessary for new life.
It is only in this last decade of my life that I’ve been graced to hear God’s call and to be given faith as well as the will to work at it—because for me faith and keeping myself conscious of God’s presence in my day–to–day is work, no denying. But now, when disappointment hits, when depression threatens, when sadness seems to overwhelm, there is some comfort in the discomfort, some memory or knowledge of light following the darkness, a hope that stands beside me when I cannot experience it within me, of Christ holding my hand. And sometimes, more and more with practice, I am even able to follow His lead.
Originally published in “Desert Call”