Monday, January 28, 2008
What is success?
A beloved friend was talking about issues of success and not reaching the expectations we (or others) had for ourselves. Oh what a vexed and thorny issue whose roots go deep into our pasts.... For me, it begins with my mother. She was the youngest of three children of very successful, well-to-do parents, and by the time she was born they were both out in the world a lot and away from home. So she was solitary, imaginative, bookish, with dark eyes, straight black hair, and olive skin - a genetic throwback to the unknown native-American ancestor that left his or her traces in our dna. This was not the ideal for girls growing up in the Country-club, debutante South. When my grandmother was around, she was urging my mother to perm her hair, dye it blond, and be more like her hugely popular older brother and sister. In fact, the last words my grandmother - in her 90s then and lost in the wilds of dementia - ever said to my mother were, "You need a little curl in your hair." We laugh about it, but ouch. My mother is also one of those people that everyone adores. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me, "Oh, I love your mother!" well, I'd have a shitload of nickels. But I'm her youngest child, her only girl, the only one she tells these childhood sadnesses to. So I know she has gone through life feeling like a failure.
And what about me? You know what they say about the apple and the tree. I'm the youngest of three kids. I'm small, with dark hair and eyes, dreamy, and bookish. I'm the flakey one, the one who dropped out of that good Ivy league school you could brag about, the one who dated unsavory men and had impractical dreams. I'm the child who ran away with the circus and, when she came back home, brought the circus with her. Both my brothers are hugely successful in their chosen fields and my mother brags about them constantly. But when she writes to her alumni magazines, she lies about me because what I do and what I am is not impressive enough. And it's OK with me, really. I know she loves me and I know it's not about me. If she felt proud of herself it wouldn't matter what I do or don't do.
So, do I feel successful? My answer is a resoundingly schizophrenic yes and no. On a purely personal level, I do. There's one thing I know I'm very talented at, and that's loving people. I am the CEO and president of love, and I've created a world around me that is overflowing with it. Two of my kids come from an orphanage, one of my kids is special needs, my husband comes from an abusive, neglectful home, and I've given them all a safe harbor in my heart, and a happy, loving circus of a home to return to at the end of each day. I look at that and I know I've done well.
And do I wish that my book would get accepted and published so that my mother could look at me with pride? Of course I do. But I threw in my lot with the circus freaks a long, long time ago, and if I don't ever have a book contract, I know they'll still be proud of me for who I am and what I do every day, which is why I ran away and joined the circus in the first place. I try and hold that feeling to my heart and I will try to pass that feeling on to my kids- that no matter what they do I am proud of them for being good, kind, loving people. If I manage that, then I guess that'll be a pretty big success.
What about you? What does success mean in your life? I'd love to hear.