Sandra A. Miller

Writer, Teacher, Treasure Hunter

Month: November 2016

Seeing The World, Not The Wall: Election Lessons From Death Row

A few years ago I profiled death row inmate Damien Echols for a national magazine. After a badly bungled police investigation, Echols, 18 at the time, was sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

The harrowing details of Echols’s nearly two-decade long ordeal in prison — 10 in solitary confinement — could erode anyone’s faith in our justice system, but that’s not the larger lesson I took away from the hours spent interviewing Echols, 41, who was released in 2011 when new forensic evidence was brought to light.

Echols said one of the most powerful things he did to get released was take his attention off what he didn’t want — dying on death row — and put it on what he did want: his freedom.

“The more you think about something, the greater the chance of it manifesting in your future,” Echols told me. “This is why it’s so important to remain focused on your desires, and not on your fears.”

“If a racecar driver looks at the wall,” Echols said, “he’ll crash into it.”
He used the analogy of a racecar driver who is trained to look at his instrument panel, the other cars, or the finish line, but never the wall. “If a racecar driver looks at the wall,” Echols said, “he’ll crash into it.”

I think of Echols’s words in times of despair when I find myself unable to fixate on anything but the bleakest possible outcome, and I make myself turn away. When my sister went through ovarian cancer last year, I’d peek at the wall now and then, but I wouldn’t let my attention linger there. Ditto for every family or professional problem I’ve faced.

But never have Echols’s words been more meaningful than last week as I spent the early hours of Wednesday morning watching Donald Trump become our next president. Like so many of us, I saw our country driving full speed ahead into a brick wall of bigotry, misogyny, patriarchy and racism.

But here we are, a week later, and it’s time to shift our weary focus. We must now task ourselves with altering what’s in our direct sight-line and see what we want instead of what we fear.

And what is that? What exactly do we want for our great country going forward? What do we hope to see unfold in the next few years?

Since the morning of November 9 I have been making my list:

I see people of every color, creed, race, religion and sexual orientation standing together in solidarity as our highest leaders hear our voices, then go to work in Washington to uphold our freedoms.

I see hydro and solar power plants fueling a nation of vibrant industry.

I see clear oceans, clean air and thriving forests.

I picture food service and childcare workers given respect and a living wage for their good, hard work.

I imagine a country with continued health care for all, and women in full control of their reproductive rights.

We have to get involved and take action. But first we have to see that world, with as much clarity as we have been considering the devastating alternative.
I see police forces cooperatively working with people of color to use restorative justice to keep all cities safe.

Stop talking about what you don’t want and focus on what you do.

When Echols was in prison he refused to consider the possibility that he would never be released, even while standing ankle deep in sewage in solitary confinement with no reason to believe he could change his fate. He simply would not look at the wall.

If we don’t want to live in Trump’s America, we have to be the change we want in the world. We have to get involved and take action. But first we have to see that world, with as much clarity as we have been considering the devastating alternative. We’re going to have to invoke the powers of our imagination to create that reality and spread that vision from coast to coast, from north to south, and the entire heartland in-between. Then we’re going to have to drive like hell to get there.

Night Clubbing

I have some pretty strong theories of people who are up at night or too early, strong like a Manhattan on the rocks with Angostura bitters and a dark cherry. We tend to think of ourselves as worriers, as tossers and turners, but that’s selling it short, that is ignoring the depths of our night clubbing souls.

I know that in a past life in the 1940’s I spent my late nights and early mornings in jazz clubs like the Copacabana or the Stork Club or backroom bars in New York where I drank French 75’s and danced on the tables with men named Chuck and Gene. I’m only 52, but I’d still rather listen to Strangers in the Night sung by Frank Sinatra than just about any contemporary song I could download this instant from iTunes. Give me a red dress and a silver cigarette case. Give me some décolletage, a lanky, dark-haired soldier, and leave us to punish the parquet at El Morocco.

During the two years I lived in Japan, my Scottish boss, Angus, would take me to Shinjuku Ni Chome,  a hidden corner of Tokyo peppered with gay clubs and love hotels that catered to the subculture of a city that was mostly overrun by rule-followers. In a dimly lit, second-floor pre-war bar, the mama-sen with her face colorfully made up like a showgirl half her age, greeted “Angus-san” with a wink, and brought him his bottle keep: Scotch Whiskey with a distinguishing metal chain looped over the glass neck.

Over hours, we would get slowly, deeply buzzed on Scotch on the rocks until we were slouched across our high corner table, Japanese voices whirling in the smoke around us, the night passing  as nights should, with the intimate companionship of another night owl.

This may not be your past night life, but it was mine, I feel it still when I’m called to hop on the T and head to  Wally’s Cafe in Boston’s South End  or Ryles Jazz Club just down the road in Cambridge. My pulse changes and my feet start to shuffle when I hear those syncopated rhythms that take me back to another time, another life when morning hours were spent, not tossing and turning and staring at the clock, but in night clubs with friends and strangers and jazz and gin and kinship.

But that’s my story. What past life is keeping you up?

The Lonely Darkness vs. The Dark Alone

Here’s my most recent post on the Brevity Blog for writers. A great place to visit in the middle of the night.

By Sandra A. Miller

Who better than a sleepless writer to explain the distinction between the Lonely Darkness and the Dark Alone? Allow me, if you will.

The Lonely Darkness is tossing in bed until your useless, 800-thread-count sheets turn warm with worry and that Tylenol PM bottle—despite you swearing off sleep aids—beckons from the bathroom shelf. The Lonely Darkness is 2:38 am and dreams you can’t return to and the cruel trick of a bone-tired body and a churning mind, hopelessly bad at getting back to sleep, but effortlessly good at remembering affronts and dread diseases that run in your family.

The Lonely Darkness is every fear you’ve had since the pregnancy stick showed a plus sign. It’s teenage children. Their college applications. Your sister’s cancer. That unwritten book. The Lonely Darkness is the insomniac’s principal’s office where you are furious to have been sent yet again, while fully aware that the true punishment will come in your workday, as sleep-deprivation tortures you into stupidity. The Lonely Darkness is your epic demon.

Then there’s The Dark Alone.

The Dark Alone finds you waking up in a house hushed with the silence of a sleeping family. You peek at the clock—5:12 am—and count forward on your fingers from 11:30 pm. What? Six hours if you round up! (And you always round up.) Energized by this rare sleep achievement, you roll out of bed and reach for your sweatpants dropped on the floor the night before. You slip them on in the searing darkness of your bedroom, and, still sightless, feel around for your Rhode Island sweatshirt hanging inside the closet door. If you’re lucky, you can extract two mismatched socks from the clean laundry pile in the corner. If not, you resort to yesterday’s stretched, slightly pungent ones on top of the hamper. Sometimes you even like those better.

Finally, wasting no time, you steal out of the bedroom where your husband, who has missed maybe a dozen nights of sleep in your 21 years together, will not wake up for two more hours. Although he’s spent some time in The Lonely Darkness, he knows nothing of The Dark Alone. This is your territory.

Downstairs you rinse out the only mug you will use at this hour—the cracked purple one your kids painted a decade ago at Clay Dreams—and brew your dark roast (the beans, the heat, the cool dash of cream) that will taste better than absolutely anything else you put to your lips all day. Nearly trippy with gratitude for sleep and caffeine, you will carry your mug to your office, set it on your desk, open your computer.

And there they are, the thoughts, seeded by quiet, watered by dark roast, they grow in the fertile soil of the morning hours. They thrive in The Dark Alone, not unlike the way plants require sun. They vine and flourish. They flower. They fruit.

In the Dark Alone you may only write for one hour, but it is always the most productive hour of your day when nothing comes between you and your words. No one’s worry or radio. No cellphone. No child. In these morning hours, you will be awed by the power of your ideas to bloom, bold and vibrant on the stalk of your genius, growing in size and strength, until all at once the sun, like a burglar, breaks through the crack between shade and window pane. Still tapping away, head bent to the sound of your inner voice, you try to ignore that thin band of brightness, but then you hear an alarm clock upstairs, then another. Soon a symphony of rap and radio and shower noises ensue while you rush to hold onto what is fast slipping away.

Minutes later the light is full up, cast across the to-do list on top of your inbox. Your daughter stumbles downstairs. “We’re out of cereal!” she shouts. And your son needs a ride to early band. Your husband, who only ever wears matching neutrals, wanders into your office. “Does this tie match?” he asks.

“Perfectly,” you assure him. And with those first words, the spell is fully shattered.

“What time did you get up?” he asks.

He winces when you tell him. He doesn’t understand.

With that, you kiss him good-bye, shut your computer, and step beyond the now blurred boundary of The Dark Alone. You toast a frozen waffle for your daughter. You tell your son you’ll drive him. You check your phone. You nibble a cracker. You look at the house, the mess, the clock. The darkness hid a hundred needs, the way the light spares nothing.

Already you miss the Dark Alone, your secret place of creation. You can only hope it will be there again tomorrow.


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