Finally learned the lesson about holes.
You know the one: If you’re in a hole stop digging.
I knew the end was coming because all the frustration, depression, anger, self-doubt and defensiveness had coalesced into a leaden ball that had finally produced stasis. I couldn’t move; I had withdrawn as much as I possibly could.
I would stare at this keyboard for hours. There was nothing in my head to type, and even if there was I doubted the ability of my fingers to type it.
It’s funny where the spark to live again comes from.
This time it came from watching an episode of “House,” the TV show about the drug-addled, brilliant doctor. I’ve maybe seen eight entire episodes of “House,” but since I see it in repeats, I’ve seen the same part of one of them about four times.
More on that later.
But I was watching this episode, when the phrase “T.S. Eliot was wrong” popped into my head. And it was like magic, as they say in TV commercials about cleaning products, my head was filled with words, the leaden ball dissolved and 20 minutes later I had written “Heal,” which is posted on this site below.
Maybe all this is occurring because Saturday was my birthday and I’m officially on the way to becoming an old fart and all those unfinished things I told myself I was going to do stood up all at once and said, “hey, what about us?
But they’re always doing that, and no, this is not a bucket list.
This is about a year of professional and personal changes that left me staring at a wall I could not climb around, over or through. If this seems indulgent, I’m sorry.
A year ago I lost my job, along with 20 others at the newspaper that employed us. I worked all year at a variety of writing positions, but when you realize you are on the slippery slope, it’s too late. It all became a struggle.
And when it’s a struggle, doubt sets in.
I’ve lost jobs before, and when it happens some survival instinct kicks in. But when you begin to doubt your skills, it becomes like a long trip down a dark mine shaft. You hope that string you’re holding on to it still tied to the door handle.
Some of you who worked with me in the past 15 years probably can’t believe that.
If you asked me a year ago what I did I’d tell you that I was the reporter who wrote the first story years ago about the closing of Dover General Hospital ; who with colleagues wrote a yearlong series on housing that agencies across the state taped to their walls it was so good, the guy who wrote a nine-part series on jobs two years before anyone else even had a whiff there was a crisis coming.
I wrote stories about topics that no one else covered, took on issues because they needed to be heard, and bullied the editors into getting them in the paper. I was productive, smart and intuitive. The stories I pitched I did so because I had my ear to the ground.
I was cocky, belligerent, aggressive and a pain in the ass. In short, I was newspaper guy. We’re like that.
If you asked me six months ago what I did, I would have told you I was one of the people who got fired.
I don’t know when it all changed, but it did.
It showed up in little ways.
I saw an online notice about a company seeking people who had mentored employees to speak to their news employees and I sent over a note saying I’d gladly volunteer.
The woman who was running the program is on a nonprofit board with me and I asked about it and she said Oh, we’re looking for people who have been corporate mentors.
I guess I didn’t qualify because I didn’t learn in a corporate classroom and I wasn’t prepared to mentor someone in the corporate manner to make them better.
I did my mentoring in a kitchen with 200 people waiting for a meal by teaching a bunch of 17-year-olds that it was important to make sure the poached egg didn’t look like it had been dropped on the floor, or that you didn’t cook fish in an omelet pan and that a little care made a big difference for the customers; I did my mentoring in newsrooms on deadline by taking rookie reporters and arming them with enough confidence and information so that they could drive to a meeting in a place they had never been, report on the event and write a newspaper story clear enough so that a reader who as not there could understand what had happened.
I was given the challenge 30 years ago of fixing a newspaper that had been losing money for years. The owner gave me six months, or he was going to close down the paper. I think it surprised him that we did it. We made enough progress in six months that he backed off his threat. Eighteen months later, we were about to break even, circulation was up 50 percent and income was up 30 percent. We put in standards and practices that solved some of the key issues and just made the paper better. By sheer force of will I was not going to let that paper, which had been first published in 1840, close on my watch.
Where’d that guy go?
When you’re down on yourself, everything is a paper cut, and you bleed to death from a thousands paper cuts. Everything, and I mean everything, has an excuse. You get better at failing than succeeding.
Which leads to the personal challenges and the hope that I have not irretrievably screwed up an important friendship.
How I got from “House” to T.S. Eliot is the key, and it shows how easily it is to get out of the hole.
It’s somewhere along the lines of the old vaudeville joke, Doc it hurts when I do this. Well, stop doing it.
During the “House” episode I stopped.
It was the episode where Wilson, House’s friend and fellow doctor, watches his wife die, and he has to tell her that the medicine she took will kill her because it changes in the body in such a way that it can not be reversed.
It is a powerfully acted scene and I’m not even sure of what it said that triggered he thought of T.S. Eliot.
And while Eliot is talking about cosmic, religious and cultural whimpering, for me at that moment, the line, “ The world ends not with a bang, but a whimper,” was about something more simple: Giving up. Wilson and his wife were not about to give up; they fought to the end, their shared love holding her fragile life to his.
And maybe without saying the words, I had given up. Made enough excuses. Blamed enough people for my own bad actions and thoughts.
So “Heal” is in fact the process of healing. Writing it was the healing process.
While I didn’t know how it was going to end, once I put the first line down, all the grief that I had been carrying around was gone. I felt lighter with each word.
And what it says there is true.
When I said it hurts to write this, it hurt to write it. I barely could do it. I walked around I was crying. I was yelling. What a mess.
But that was also when I knew what was going on and where the piece was going.
It is not about the end of anything, but the continuance. Not about pain, but celebration, shared feelings and life.
My dear friend, I don’t know what will happen between us. It will be different, but it will never be bad.
I celebrate that we know each other, and celebrate who you are.
I spent much of the last year feeling small. Thinking small, acting small, making small everything around me.
I no longer feel small.
Michael Stephen Daigle
- The gospel according to Oswald: ‘It ain’t about dreams, and peace, just about war until the end.’
- The start of a new Nagler book. Maybe. Possibly. It’s a mystery.
- An audience of one
- Reading at Mouintainside, N.J., Library at 1 p.m. Saturday (June 17)
- Wake the gray day
- What’s next for Frank Nagler
- Two readings events this week: Wednesday and Saturday
- Sitting in traffic with Nanci Griffith