The Shadow of Failure

“I work continuously within the shadow of failure. For every novel that makes it to my publisher’s desk, there are at least five or six that died on the way.”

–Gail Godwin

Tell me about a time a failure paved the way to a new beginning.


  1. jann says

    When I was in my last year of nursing school, I became very ill with viral pericarditis (infection in the sac surrounding the heart) and spent 6 weeks in the hospital. As a result of that illness, I was not able to graduate with my class. More tragic, however, was the fact that my school closed down and I had nowhere to go to school. I spent those 6 weeks in the hospital depressed and worried that I would never be able to be a nurse and that I might never recover to do much of anything.

    One of my nurse friends brought me a thick book on cardiology. I perused it at first because I still felt sick having fever and pain for days and days. Gradually, I began to read about the heart and of course specifically about pericarditis. The heart had not been particularly interesting to me previously but at that time stuck in bed and knowing that my life depended upon my heart healing, I began to develop a keen interest in that muscle and its electrical system.

    Many days when he rounded, my cardiologist and I talked “heart, ” and I soon realized I wanted to be a Coronary Care Nurse. That interest seemed to be an impetus in my getting better and planning my future instead of moaning about my problems.

    I finished my remaining courses with a university and was encouraged to get a BA. I opted out of that for the time and went on to a major teaching hospital where I worked in CCU for several years. Whenever we had a patient with pericarditis, everyone called on me for I seemed to be the resident expert.

    Without my getting ill and without my school closing, I would have never developed an interest or even a path to something that became dear to my heart and livelihood.

    • Debbie O says

      Jann – your experience not only shaped your career but, sounds like, has also brought comfort to others as you really understand what they are feeling. Enjoyed your story.

  2. Eugenia says

    “We’ll no longer be needin your services,” loudly pronounced Mr. Connolly, a head of a janitorial crew of Denver’s Office Works. He just received a phone call from his client, the Mountains Loans and Mortgages representative, reciting all the horrible things these new people did. They forgot to empty some trashcans, and dust a mini palm tree, but the worst sin was – they moved reports from one corner of the desks to another, making him late to the morning meeting. He was very upset and demanded to fire the cleaners. Mr. Connolly promised to take care of it.
    A couple with long, hard to pronounce names, Ljudmila and Stanislav, stood in front of him showing no emotions. They looked like brother and sister. Both were short, middle-aged, and pudgy. Only she wore a pair of thick round glasses, making her eyes appear black and small. Their faces were blank.
    “Do you understand me?” Mr. Connoly asked, his eyebrows furrowed. “I regret to inform you that you are fired.”
    Stanislav gripped his wife’s hand, they turned around and slowly walked out of the empty MLM office into the dark street.
    Mr. Connolly lighted his cigarette. He hired and fired people many times in his life, and always for a good reason. But this time he felt bad. “You know, “ he said once to his wife Evelynn, “I like those offices to be organized and clean. You have to have order in your life.” This couple seemed to understand that. They tried very hard. Mr. Connolly thought that their life was once in order too. But it was just his thought. He didn’t know anything about them besides a few details on their resume compiled by JCC. Refugees. They spoke no English at all.
    Mr. Connolly heard strange sounds coming from the street. He moved to the window and looked down. Stanislav stood in the dark empty lot talking to Ljudmila in Russian. He sounded calm and reassuring. She shrugged, and whipped her eyes. Stanislav said something again, and cut the air with his hand as if saying “enough”. She looked at him and nodded again. Her nodd was decisive and quick. Then, both of them got into an old Chevrolet, and, after turning it on and off several times, left.

    “Let me examine you,” a short serious woman in an open white jacket breezed into the room. Mr. Connolly sat on a flat leather couch waiting for his doctor. He was half-undressed, a worn-out blue hospital robe with fishes and boats, covered his bony shoulders. After many years in business, he has retired, and now spent his days tending to his flower garden. Several months ago he fell, and broke his leg. After the cast got removed, the leg was thin, pale, and wouldn’t bend.
    The doctor fixed her thick glasses, and ran her fingers down his leg, feeling his weakened muscles, bumps and veins. She reviewed the x-rays, prescribed massages and showed him a few exercises. Doctor had a heavy but understandable accent, but nowadays one gets easily used to an accent. “Do you remember me, Mr. Connolly?” she asked, suddenly smiling.
    Mr. Connolly shook his head no.
    “Stanislav and Ljudmila. You fired us?”
    Mr. Connolly shifted uncomfortably on his couch. He remembered them now. “I felt bad for you,” he said.
    “It was the best thing that happened to us then. That night on the parking lot Stanislav and I decided that I will be a doctor again. He said that for the next few years my job will be study for the license. He’ll make sure we survive. We did it. I passed.”
    “and your husband?” Mr, Connoly asked, relaxing. In truth, he never forgot this couple, and occasionally wondered what has happened to them.
    “Our life is in order Mr. Connoly. He works. Stanislav became an engineer again too.”
    Mr. Connolly nodded. He respected order in this life.

    • Ilana says

      What a beautiful story, Eugenia. I read it twice but I doubt that will be the last time. I love how transparent, honest, your characters are. You don’t give anything away and the end just hit me like a ton of bricks. Thank you for sharing it. But I gotta ask, is it true?

    • Debbie O says

      I so enjoy how you tell the story and involve us without ever giving away the ending, where you shake up our assumptions about what was going to happen. Delightful! (Glad you decided to come back this week!)

  3. Andrea says

    There is a paper bag by my front door. Inside the bag is another paper bag. Inside that bag is a dead chicken. The chicken is destined for burial after a ruckus with the neighbor dog. A few days after the chicken’s death, the neighbor dog in question was hit and killed by a car. We were sad because we liked the neighbor dog. We also liked the chicken. She was kind of a pet.

    Back to the bag though. Who leaves a dead chicken in a bag by their front door for several days in a row? I guess that would be me. In the midst of the dead chicken and the dead neighbor dog, my husband told me he wanted a divorce. Although I logically suspected this was coming, the reality of the word “divorce” uttered out loud with such finality erased contemplation of any other subject. The bagged chicken is ignored. She is well wrapped and only those that know she is in there, know she is in there.

    My eyes hurt. The tears have actually burned them from their volume. I woke up in the night crying. I didn’t know you could cry in your sleep. I know this now. I also know some other things that I didn’t know before. I mean that I didn’t KNOW before. Being told things and experiencing them for yourself creates a different kind of knowledge. Knowing in your heart is different than knowing in just your head.

    I know that my marriage has failed and that it was mostly my fault. Thus, I feel like a failure. I know that I’ve hurt someone so badly that I find it impossible to think he may ever forgive me. I know that I’ve lost something that, while not perfect, was far more than most other people ever achieve. I know that I’ve potentially created a situation that could be very detrimental to the future of the two people I love the most…my children. I can only pray that the support of our family and friends may keep them safe.

    And yet, in the midst of this failure that feels like a large, wet, down comforter smothering me, I have learned some other things I didn’t know. I now know what an incredible capacity there is for support from the people around me, some of whom I would never expect. I know that even in my pain, last summer, I reached out to someone who was unknowingly in a similar situation and because of a gift I shared with them, they were able to save their marriage. Several months ago my pain and fear pushed me to start writing again and that writing led to a friendship that has not only become a life raft for me, but for her as well.

    I’m finding my voice again, trying to salvage what is left of my “self”, and confronting my faults that need to be attended to. Is the price of the man I love worth these things? I suspect it is not for me to say. I do not know what the final outcome will be and in what small ways my life may impact others. I do know that I don’t want that price to be paid for nothing. I will do better and be better.

    For starters, I will go bury the ignored chicken.

    • says

      Andrea, thanks for sharing such a poignant, moving story. And I”m so happy to hear that writing has been a lifeline for you. I hope your participation in this online community of writers is a comfort for you, too.

    • Eugenia says

      Hi Andrea,
      I read your story twice. It is great — I understood the emotions, I liked the language, and I absolutely loved the chicken — it added some humor to the story.

      • Andrea says

        Thank you Eugenia. My mom always says that sometimes things get so bad that your only choice is to look for the humor. It has been that kind of year.

    • Andrea says

      As I re read this my more aware self notices that I left something important out. There is a lot of “I” in this story. One of the most important things I now KNOW is how much pain I’ve caused my husband and how he will carry this pain and experience with him for the rest of his life. While not visible, the interior pain we cause other people by breaking our promises and not being truthful is equivalent, if not worse, than physically harming someone. If he IS ever able to forgive me, I will still face the challenge of forgiving myself.

      • says

        Your honesty about your human failings is definitely the first step–and really the only step you can control. Once we acknowledge our failings and do what we can to make amends–its up to the other person to walk their own path in their own time. I wish you well. Self-forgiveness is a tough nut.

    • Ilana says

      Andrea- I too read this piece a few times. It is heart wrenching and beautiful at the same time. I applaud you for the courage it must have taken to turn yourself inside out like that. A friend of mine recently said to me, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down in front of the keyboard and bleed.” As for the chicken; it lent humor, balance and another level of humanity to your piece. Thank you for sharing this story with me. I found it truly moving.

    • Debbie O says

      Andrea – this writing is so present, real and honest. Selfishly, I am glad that you started writing again and hope that it will serve to provide some of the support and insight you desire. I, too, enjoyed how you used the chicken for comic relief. Don’t let go of the lifelines!!

  4. Ilana says

    “V’yerkesu, et ha choshen mitabotav…” These words and the tune I sing them in, will probably haunt me forever. They are the first few words of the Torah portion (a part of the Jewish bible, ‘parasha’ in Hebrew) I was supposed to sing on February 12, 2011. I had spent three solid months learning that parasha. Each word had to be pronounced perfectly. The tune from the ancient musical note system didn’t have to be perfect but if I didn’t get it right I could lose my place and then I would make more mistakes. I spent hours reading the words from the typed page with the regular Hebrew letters, with vowels and the musical notes. (These notes are called tropes.) None of that would be available to me in the scrolls on the big day. In the scrolls you would find beautiful calligraphy containing no vowels and no tropes. I sang it into a tape and listened to it over and over again until I knew it perfectly. I studied the parasha in English until it made sense to me and I found a personal connection to it. Then I wrote a two minute speech to teach it to the group.

    My minyan (group of people we pray with) was a small, lay lead gathering where the rabbi was a just another member of the congregation if and when he came. It was a great group of people and now they were going to celebrate with me! I was reading Torah to honor the 10th anniversary of my emergency brain surgery.

    Samuel was in charge of setting up the service. He assigned the parts, took requests and in my case, provided encouragement. Probably a little younger than my own father, he had white hair, an easy smile and a relaxed way about him that made it appear he was comfortable in his own skin. I hoped that one day I would enjoy life like that.

    The week before, after months of studying, I was all ready to go. He tapped my shoulder as I was leaving services, “You’re reading next week, aren’t you?”

    “Yes! I can’t wait!”

    “Neither can I.” He smiled generously.

    “Thank you.” Those were the last words I spoke to him before I lost my voice.

    The next week was filled with e-mails between us. Mine panicked and his reassuring. If I did not get my voice back he could learn the parasha and do it for me. If I did get my voice back he would let me do it. Not to worry.

    I did everything I could to get my voice back. I went to the doctor for what they called “a steroid burst.” I drank two pots of tea with honey every day, did all the disgusting nasal rinses and I did not utter a single word for four solid days. This is not an easy task when you have three young children but I was determined.

    When I woke up the morning of the 12th I knew it had all been useless. I printed up copies of my speech and figured I would hand them out so at least I could teach what I had learned about the parasha. I arrived at the Temple to find that the rabbi had volunteered to lead services. Great! He was going to witness my failure too. To my surprise he made a couple of supportive comments during the service. “Our minyan is so determined that our Torah reader is going to sing to us without a voice.” Still, with a heavy heart, I informed Samuel that he was going to have to read for me.

    “Well.” He hedged. “Why don’t you give it a try and we’ll see how it goes.” So when the time came, I stood, trembling, before my minyan. “I want you all to know.” He began. “Ilana has spent months learning this parasha. She has asked me to read it for her because she lost her voice but I think we should have her do it anyway.” Everyone sat stone silent as I whispered the first of three sections of my parasha. ‘Why are you doing this?’ I asked myself. ‘You can’t even hear yourself.’ When I finished that first third, Samuel looked up from his book. “I heard it and I guarantee you she did not mispronounce one word.” It was too late. I had already backed away from the Torah and begun to cry. He was going to have to take over for me.

    Nothin’ doin’. Samuel put his arms around me and guided me back to the podium, insisting that I finish the reading. You could have heard a pin drop as everyone strained to hear me sing. Then I handed out the copies of my speech and whispered it as they followed along. Ironically, the last line of my speech appreciated my community. “Each individual was of vital import to the group as a whole. I believe that the same is true of this community, so I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize every member of our minyan and thank each of you for what you bring to our service. Shabbat shalom and from the bottom of my heart, thank you!” I had not known how true the statement would be even when I read it. After services everyone stopped me to congratulate me.

    In the week that followed e-mails poured in applauding my courage to read even with laryngitis. People started popping out of the woodwork volunteering to lead services, read Torah and so much more, people who never had the courage before. More than one person said to me, “It’s because of you that I am even doing this. The way I saw that community support you, I knew they would be kind to me.”

    My minyan changed that day. Before my fateful bout with laryngitis we were a group of friends who prayed and studied together. That day we became a family. The beautiful energy from that day never weakened. I feel safe with my minyan. I feel cared about. When my inner turmoil overwhelms me during my silent prayers, as it almost always does, and reduces me to tears, I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have nothing to hide. They know I am crying and they know I have no desire to share why. That’s just the way Ilana does it and they accept that.

    When I read that parasha, which Samuel saved for me on this year’s calendar, I will stand before them and repeat the last line of my speech. Then I will say, “This is not the 11th anniversary of my brain surgery. This is the 1st anniversary of the day you showed me how powerful it can be when the community rallies to support its members.”

    • Debbie O says

      Ilana – what a story of triumph! I already like Samuel for how kind he was to you! Your story made me feel a part of the community and your courage to push ahead even with laryngitis clearly touched many in the group that day. Thank you for sharing that story with us!

      • Ilana says

        Thank you, Debbie. How odd that I just finished saying that your writing welcomed me in and now I reread your comment to see that I was able to do the same for you. I had to smile. Though he is a wonderful man, Samuel is not his real name. I am so honest about so many ugly details in my life here that I take great pains to keep my identity a secret. “All names have been changed to protect the guilty” 😉

    • Andrea Jones says


      My experiences with religion have left a sour note, but what you describe replaces my images with a bit of sweet. This is what I believe worship should feel like; what the purpose of religion should be. Thank you.

      • Ilana says

        Thank you, Andrea. I, too, struggled with the ugly sides of religion. It took me almost 20 years to find a place where I belong in the Jewish community. I agree with you, this is what religion should be about. Thank you for helping me celebrate it.

    • Andrea Jones says


      My experiences with religion have left a sour note, but what you describe replaces my images with a bit of sweet. This is what I believe worship should feel like; what the purpose of religion should be. Thank you.

    • Elena says

      This was powerful & beautiful & full of hope & pain & optimism!
      I can absolutely relate because I, too, am Jewish. But your
      Experiences are, of course uniquely yours, as is your voice (no pun intended!). Keep it up – you write the way you feel, & that is awesome!

      • Ilana says

        Thank you Terry, I have been thinking about this a lot because the big day is coming up. I will have been preparing for one year, four months, two weeks and six days. Wish me luck! I do miss your posts. Thank you again.

    • Ilana says

      PS. I am finally going to read that Parasha tomorrow morning and will be sharing with my minyan what I wrote here. I wanted you all to know because your comments mean so much to me that you will be there with me in spirit.

      • Debbie says

        Ilana – I am dying of curiosity to hear how things went reading the Parasha and also the sharing with your minyan? I hope you will share with us about the day when you are ready.

        • Ilana says

          Thanks Debbie. It made my day that you cared to hear! Everything went beautifully. I hit the most difficult note with confidence and Samuel did not have to correct one pronunciation. Someone told me they heard someone crying while I was giving the response to the writers prompt but I believe that was me. 😉 I am so touched that you care. I thought of you all as I told the minyan what the writing prompt was.

    • Ilana says

      I appreciate that, Laura. It took me a long time to pull myself out of the bitterness of the loss, to truly embrace the triumph but I guess now I have. I am honored to be able to share this story, to tell all of you what my minyan did for me.

  5. Debbie O says

    I am struggling with this topic.

    It is not because I haven’t made my share of mistakes, screwed up and flat out failed over my life to date. It is because I am realizing I am always actively editing my past, overlaying the failures with the lessons learned so that, upon reflection, what I mostly remember are the lessons learned versus the actual details of the not meeting the mark. Tonight as I struggle to decide what the topic of my post will be, I am also wondering if there isn’t just the slightest bit of denial going on as well. If I only remember, or share, the learnings then we can gloss over the miserable performance or situation that provided the opportunity for this unintended growth. Hmmm…. Well, here goes!

    No one in my immediate biological family has ever been divorced, except me. When, at twenty-seven, I made the momentous decision to leave my husband I felt like a complete failure. Never mind that the relationship was so unhealthy that suicide sometimes seemed like a much less painful option. Never mind the emotional and sexual abuse that occurred over the years had put my soul in jail. Never mind that I was carrying the financial load for myself, him and his mother. None of this registered in my version of reality at the time.

    All I could think of was the shame of being the first one in my family to FAIL at marriage. Fail – do you hear me? Something was really wrong with me after all. I wasn’t special. In fact, I was obviously defective. Those were lonely, cold and desperate days. The worst time, actually, was the last few months before I finally stood my ground and left.

    During those days, I would vacillate between thinking there was something I could do different to change the patterns. If I could just try harder, keep my mouth shut, quit wanting so much from him. Eventually I decided. Even if no one ever loved me again, even if I spent the rest of my life alone – it would be better than what I had, or didn’t have. In fact, when he would say “no one will ever love you like me again”, I silently prayed for that to be true. Hoped it was actually an unintentional blessing for my future.

    Standing on the edge of a decision about life and death, I decided; why not try something different before ending it all? What did I really have to lose? I could always change my mind later and still “check out” if it was unbearable. More unbearable than my married life, I mean.

    So I left, got divorced and got on with my life. I could never have imagined, at that dark time, how wondrous my life would become over the next three decades. Since then, I have known love again – but never again like he loved me. I am so thankful for that.

    I have been able to travel, often for work, and see most of this incredible country. I have met some of the most caring and amazing people. I have begun, of late, to find the courage to work through the black holes of my past. Work has been full of purpose and service to others. There are not many items left on my bucket list because I have embraced the decision toward life and authenticity.

    Guess that is my big learning from this miserable time; take a risk. Life is a choice not a sentence. When I look back on my life, I don’t want to be haunted by the “what if” question.

    Brings me back to a favorite quote I may have actually shared before, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I learned to periodically ask myself this question and see what came up. Those things go on my list to try next.

    And most important of all, I learned that failure is never permanent. It is only a temporary condition that eventually passes, if you keep breathing

    • Andrea Jones says

      Considering our failures in retrospect and only seeing the silver lining should be a gift, not a curse. To consider our failures in present and see the same positive side would be a true accomplishment. So enjoyed your writing (as always :) and loved the last line.

    • Eugenia says

      Hi Debbie,
      Loved your story. But somehow, the first paragraph where you talk about editing one’s past in order to not feel the pain any longer, the positive lessons that help cover details of one’s failure, resonated with me the most last night. Such honesty and thoughtfulness is not common. Ability to remember the details vs “lessons” is what makes you a good writer, I think. Even though it might be painful again. Something to ponder about…

      • Debbie O says

        Eugenia – Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. It is clear that you have a gift for details – and I am learning from you on that point.

    • Ilana says

      THANK YOU! Debbie, this is so warmly written, so open and honest that I felt you inviting me to learn with you. I related strongly to a lot of what you said, especially about trying to keep your mouth shut and not ask so much of him. I felt similarly in the final months before I broke off my engagement in 1997. Your attitude made space for that. I have always found your writing ‘approachable’. You talk to your reader, rather than at us. This is why I look so forward to your posts.

  6. Debbie O says

    I just came across a favorite quote that felt appropriate to share on this week’s topic. I hope you enjoy it!

    Wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.
    – Rachel Naomi Remen

  7. says

    I’m failing a lot.
    I’m not exactly sure why, but I am..
    I guess a little bit of humility never hurt anyone..
    (I just wish I knew how to do that)..
    I want to get past my failures–and my successes.
    I want to live life more authentically than that..
    I want to breathe the fresh air and know that this is victory..
    I want to peruse the want-ads for funny listings and laugh..
    I want to say that I lived–not just that I won or lost..

    The problem, my dear friends, is this:
    I’m so used to “winning,” to succeeding, to being able to “conquer” the next big thing–and yet, I am still empty inside
    I still have noone and feel as though I am noone
    I know how to “win” and how to succeed, but I want more
    I just don’t know what to do right now because I’m so used to the old paradigm and I think trying to change it feels futile
    It’s like I’m stuck in never-never land where only winning and losing matter– yet they really don’t matter to me anymore (or–at least that’s what I’d like to believe..(!))
    Well, dear friends, perhaps the self-saboteur that is within me is tired as well..
    He is saying, “enough, already..” “Enough(!)”
    I just wish I knew that there was something out there –for me
    Other than that, I just don’t know..
    keep on keepin’ ow-an..

    • Debbie O says

      Changing a paradigm is always hard – how do you shift your perspective when you are surrounded by perceptions that only reinforce the old model? Your post really conveyed that challenge and frustration. Thanks for sharing it with us!

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