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.

17 comments:

yellowdog granny said...

personally....I think your the most successful person I know..
your loved and deserving to be loved...plus..I like the hell out of ya..

Auld Hat said...

"a resoundingly schizophrenic yes and no"
lol, oh honey. Yes. Yup yup yup.

sageweb said...

Wow you write so well. So success for me is just learning to love myself. I have a great job I love, and I am good at it. But that isn't what is important, other then it pays the bills.
When a child spends says 15 good years of hearing negativity, it lasts a lifetime. I say 15 years because 3-18, I became my own person at 18. I broke free. But years later I still struggle with what is good and what is real. So when I wake up and I am entirely happy and love who I am then I am a Success.

Will said...

Don't sell yourself short; actually finishing a book is something to be damn proud of. I might not be your mother, but I look at you with pride.

The Scott Blog said...

my idea of success is being honest with myself, meeting myself where i'm at and challenging myself in new ways whenever i can. all of those things lead me to be successful at life.

Elizabeth said...

Granny: Thanks. I like you too.

Hat: You gotta laugh at yourself (so everyone else can laugh with, not at, you) right?

Oh Sage, I wish so much that I could wave a magic wand that would take the pain away from all these people - my friend, my darling mother, you. Here's how I perceive you - bright, funny, self depricating, and just plain nice. Someone any parent should feel privileged to have as their child.

Will: Thankyou dear one. That means a lot to me, especially coming from my (honorary) first child and only son. xoxo

Scott: No easy tasks! But then the important things aren't always easy.

JB said...

Hmmm...I will let you know when I find it. I too have created my own family full of love and laughs. Now that I am writing, maybe my success is not repeating the failures and harmful patterns of my family. Looking forward to reading your book!

Claire M. Johnson said...

I think that even the most "successful" people feel "unsuccessful" on some level. I don't know ANYONE who did feel like childhood wasn't a major fail, because, hey, a kid navigating in a world where you don't make the rules, you've got short little legs, and everyone is walking really fast. So I think that ying/yang of this is carrying around that remnant of kid that never feels behind the eight ball, versus the adult who says, HEY, I DID OKAY, DAMMIT! None of it is rational. It's when you let the kid in you dominate and let that nascent "fail" take over is when things start going pear-shaped. I think we need to keep that wee child at bay and focus on the adult. And yes, you do succeed in spades at love, and, frankly, the sort of bylines on a resume can give a certain satisfaction, but if you don't got love, baby? Doesn't matter one whit, IMO.

Claire M. Johnson said...

PS: Finally got user friendly blog up. Here:

http://clairemjohnson.blogspot.com/

Nice news on the bookfront...

Elizabeth said...

jb: And maybe it's not just avoiding the old mistakes, but also forgiving ourselves for the ones we have made and will make?

Claire: Yes, yes, and yes again. Gotta let it go, which I think I mostly have. But, as you said on your blog about the schizo mind set of the writer, I think most of us carry the schizo wish to please our parents and to leave their wishes and dreams for us far behind.

By the way, I'll go get that book. Sounds terrific.

more cowbell said...

Oh that's a hard question. Especially when my head is still in a fog. I think I'll just go with your resoundingly schizophrenic yes & no. For women especially, society doesn't make it easy for us to see our yes answers as true "success". My no answers come from sacrifices/choices I've made in order to have the yes answers. My yes's (yeses?) revolve mainly around my kids, bringing them up, and my own personal inner development. The no answers revolve around what I wish paid the bills a hell of a lot better. So ... yes and no.

SubtleKnife said...

Finishing a book/screenplay/short story/anything! would be a good start...

Much as I like the screenplay I've been working on for a short movie, it's depressing me (fortunately it's not meant to be a comedy) so I recently started a complete rewrite of a science fiction story that's been with me for a long time.

In the meantime finding a job that doesn't bore me after a few months would be good. Finding out what kind of job that is would be my main goal...

Elizabeth said...

Cowbell: For a woman in a fog you do a pretty incisive analysis. Seriously! I for women, the choices we make, and that give us fulfillment and satisfaction, in the personal arena are also usually the same things that make us feel unsuccessful in the societal arena. Nice crystalization. Thanks!

SK: Good luck on finishing those projects, and also on the job. There are many, many boring jobs out there, and I've done a lot of them!

mumbliss said...

Success is a whole bunch of ss and cs and a whole bunch of ideas that keep changing depending on how I feel and where I am. Sometimes they stay still and make beautiful sense, and other times I just can't seem to make sense out of the jumble. I have alphabet soup. If I try too hard, the soup gets cold, and I can't enjoy it as much. I guess I need a big spoon and a napkin in my pocket at all times. That may help.XXXOOO

jason said...

That's a hard one...or maybe not.
(Nothing but paradoxes come to my mind.)

Ultimately, I suppose success for me is acceptance...
and it finds me and eludes me...like a butterfly...sometimes at the same time.

D-Man said...

Ya know, although I eschew traditional socio-cultural definitions of success, sometimes self-doubt makes me believe that I'm fooling myself and I just can't cut it.

I blogged a little about it here:

http://outinthemiddleofidaho.blogspot.com/search/label/Success

As the sibling of two genius brothers in a generally brilliant and 'successful' family, your story sounds awfully familiar to me.

Elizabeth said...

d-man: I was sick and brainless when you left this comment so unable to put two words together coherently in response. A week later, I've finally read your thoughtful piece. It does sound like we have a lot in common. Both of us opted out of the models for "success" we were presented with, and made up our own. Man, that East coast, Ivy-league world of Greenwich and Westchester is just deadly isn't it? My teens, who have never encountered a preppy or been on a sailboat, just bought Topsiders as a strange fashion statement. Everytime I see them (the shoes, not the teens) I kind of feel like puking. But they're blithely unaware that somewhere in the world, lime-green shoes (and pants!) are considered entirely normal, not bizarrely fashion forward. Happily, they'll never go to Choate, Exeter, or Yale, so they'll remain in blissful ignorance.