Hell and Teaspoons

Joyce Angela Jellison is a graduate of Massachusetts School of Law and the author of three books. She is also mixed-media visual artist, workshop facilitator and founder of WriteOutLoudBoston!, a nonprofit organization encouraging women of color to write their stories as an empowerment/survival tool.


As a child, I tried digging my way to hell with a teaspoon.

I did this in my grandmother’s front yard, burrowing in rich soil and uprooting her rose bushes beneath a complacent North Carolina sun. This was the first big thought – the idea I could meet the devil and question him endlessly. I imagined he would be civil and bemused at my unconventional entrance into his realm. I dug an entire day with no more than a teaspoon and determination. This was me at no more than five years old with a child’s rudimentary understanding of theology.

This was the genesis of my big dreaming, thinking and living.

The dreaming was endless; visions of who I would become danced in my head like sugarplums on Christmas eve. And every day was the eve of something, the perpetual dawning of beginnings were sunrises and full moons cresting my temples.

I was determined I would be in New York by 18, writing, acting, dancing. This is the collective dream of many girls. To paraphrase famed attorney, Charles Darrow, it is not the sleeping boy nor the dream, but rather that which exists beyond the sleeping boy. My dreams at 18 contrasted with what I envisioned at 47 are not much different. They have been translated into moments and those moments into a patchwork life of balancing survival on the pulse of dream and the inhale, exhale of labored reality.

At 47 my life has at times, seemed to be small, depending upon the measuring stick upon which I have placed it against. There has always been interferences brutally interrupting and resetting the goals, but I have managed to consistently find my way. There was the birth of my child, the necessity to provide and simultaneously create. I would balance her on my knee as I wrote, still there were always the dreams, pulling and tugging at my insides – resting in my womb along with her. In a sense she was a twin, having been nestled in the basin of me with my persistent dreams I was determined to make real.

Shortly after my daughter’s first birthday, I walked into the newsroom of the local weekly newspaper with a high school essay and an article I had written as an intern for a college program. I wanted to report the news and I offered these as proof of my ability. The editor looked at me oddly and took my crisp folder bearing small witness to my future as a journalist. Still, I was emboldened, even a bit validated he did not at once ask me to leave the small cramped offices of the newsroom.

I was spinning gold from nothing more than my intentions. I walked away with a job as a stringer, writing articles for 25 dollars a piece. This was my moment. I would be read and my intention had been given life. It began to breathe and demand, it was as my child – fussy, petulant and divined by my actions. My first article appeared within two Sundays and I was ecstatic. It was as if I had given birth yet again. My words, there in black and white. My name above those words. I traced the news print with my fore finger as if they were braille and I could feel the rise of the letters, I imagined I could smell the ink, black and intoxicating. It was my beginning as a writer – a peek into the hole I had begun digging as a child.

We struggled with my writer’s life, though within a year I was an editorial assistant at another newspaper. My editor mentioned me to another editor and without an interview I was offered a full time position.

I could not sleep with the thought of my new position peering from behind the fuzziness of tiredness. I had accepted the job without thinking of how I would manage it. I was 24, I couldn’t drive, my husband had left us before my daughter turned two and I was without reliable daycare. But I accepted the position. I leapt at the chance to be in the newsroom every day, to sit before one of those Mac computers and have the comfort of the keys pressing against my fingertips.

Within this moment, there were small fractures like chips in window shields – expanding and growing under pressure.

There was hunger, late rent payments, the struggle to sustain adequate care for my daughter. But somehow, we were not diminished in our lives. We managed to be enlarged and not made smaller by the salty inevitably combining with the sweet. There were mashed potatoes for dinner and nights we huddled together in the damp coldness of my Boston flat, her small body curled against my bosom. Still I was a writer, forging a way for us through it all.

My daughter and I shared these moments, a universe growing in our veins. Me transitioning from the girl dreaming of a New York loft filled with flowers and books, sitting by the window documenting from the inside. I was now a woman with a child in a home filled with odd items collected from yard sales and thrift shops and baby toys. We existed within and on the fringe of the next moment.

By the time I was 37, I was an award-winning journalist and author of my first book. Life had become a series of dreams linked to moments that had birthed a life that more often than not felt small when wearing it but appeared larger to those window-shopping, briefly glancing – barely imprinting us on lens and memory. We were an American vision, she and I. The single mother, the career, those racing unbridled dreams given life.

My daughter was no longer a small child when I accepted my law degree at 45. She, in accordance with all young women of these times, announced my accomplishment via her Facebook page and in this announcement she linked our past to our present. She reminisced our struggle with homelessness and unemployment. This all to evidence the path, the dreams, those milestones marking moments that grow their own lives do not come without struggle.

The path to prosperity is peppered with potholes and often it is necessary to pull oneself from an unexpected wreckage – yet it is the insistence on pulling oneself from the wreckage that occasions many of the accomplishments that have grown small in the rear view mirror of my collective memory.

I am no more than a sum of these recollections.

Big life? No, an ordinary life with extraordinary dreams transformed into realities that were as once as surreal as digging my way to hell with a teaspoon in the front yard, uprooting rosebushes and wrecking ant-trails along the way.