Copyright 2013 Pacific Northwest Writers Association. All Rights Reserved
Answers Come in Pieces--So, Hold On
Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you.
Years ago I used to write down my dreams and think about their possible symbols and messages. Sometimes before sleep, I’d even ask a question and record my answer-dream in the morning. Occasionally I got what felt like a complete solution, but more often I was given insights that opened my eyes a little bit more – pieces of an answer. GPS navigation devices are similar; every direction needed is available, but because we won’t retain or even possibly understand all the steps at once, we are given only the next direction for which we are ready. The answer to getting where we want to go comes in pieces, next steps, small moves and turns – and all of that together gets us where we want to be.
When we teach a child to read we start with the alphabet and small words, not paragraphs, chapters, sentence structure, and grammar. The problem “I can’t read” isn’t solved with the title of a good book; the solution begins with learning the letter “A”. And when I write fiction, a scene sometimes comes, a piece of dialogue, or maybe a character’s quirk. Every time I look inward towards the story, I can feel the whole of it, but only see and hear parts. In writing, as in life, I can perceive and work with only so much at a time.
Though we often call solutions to problems answers, we don’t always think of problems as questions. But problems inspire questions that directly and often indirectly lead us to what we want. When I was in art school, my back started hurting so much I was seeing a chiropractor twice a week and couldn’t sit for more than ten minutes at a time. My back had become my problem. All I thought I was asking for was how to feel normal again when, in truth, my question was much bigger.
The pain just wouldn’t go away, no matter what I did, so after a while I lost interest in trying to find a physical cause and cure and started asking about possible emotional components. I read what I could find on stress and thought about my life and my mental orientation towards everything. I kept asking how I could take better care of myself. Then one day, somewhat desperately, I asked the chiropractor if there was anything else I could do; she suggested aerobics. I was already going for walks regularly (as instructed) but feared hurting myself with exercise. Then she gave me an answer I didn’t realize I was looking for; she told me not to be afraid of the pain.
You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.
~ Glinda, The Wizard of Oz
I started exercising, consciously, not cautiously, and gradually challenged my contracted thinking, and in doing so, my contracted body. I used physical movement to help me focus and learn that everything can be worked with, and that my energy is best spent enjoying what I can do rather than trying to protect myself from getting hurt (physically or emotionally). I’d believed I had to be afraid of pain; it had never occurred to me there was a choice. It was a big answer that came over time, in pieces, and one I’m not sure I would have received if not for the questions my back inspired.
I like the idea that my answers are already here – though I might not yet perceive them until a decisive focus on my part takes hold. In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy’s problem is she’s in Oz and wants to be home. Her question is, “How do I get home?” By the end of the story, Glinda the Good Witch reveals that Dorothy always had the power: she need only click the heels of her ruby slippers together and think, There’s no place like home. The shoes alone are not the answer. Dorothy’s focus is needed.
When asked why she didn’t tell her sooner, Glinda says Dorothy would never have believed her. Perhaps Dorothy’s question was bigger than just how to get back to Kansas. Maybe, like all of us, she wanted to know she already had everything she needed – the intelligence, courage, and heart to find her way back to love, back home, any time she chose. And perhaps, there is no great story, no meaningful adventure if an answer comes too soon. So, hold on.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.