(Because I haven’t reached out to the folks or their families, and because the information here’s a little bit personal, I’m altering the names of the real and wonderful people about whom I write.)
My mother, when I was growing up, had herself a frienemy.
Oh, of course, we didn’t call the relationship that then, but that’s what they were, my mom and Thea–frienemies. I have to think they really, deep down, loved each other–why else would they keep calling, keep visiting, keep plugging away at a relationship that seem to chafe them both?
Thea’s kids were all around the same age as my mother’s own darling offspring, and they were all–sigh–so much BETTER. They got good grades, and they didn’t get rides home in police cars, and they didn’t rip their pants climbing chain link fences to get out of places where they shouldn’t have been in the first place. They didn’t roll their skirts up to mini length as soon as they were out of sight of the house. Their breaths didn’t smell suspiciously wine-y or malt-y, never mind a thick overlay of sweet spray mouthwash, after Friday night football games. And they didn’t provoke evening phone calls to parents from school personnel, unless the call was to tell Thea and her husband that their child had earned yet another scholarship, award, or academic kudo.
When the school called our house, the room quickly cleared. My older brothers–oh, they were unfeeling!–would send one of us younger ones back in as sacrificial scouts after the receiver banged back into place. If the canary stopped singing, those bad boys would stay out of the mine a little bit longer.
And, the next day, maybe, Mom and Thea would wind up chatting on the phone, again. Comparisons would commence.
Thea would call Mom, say, to tell her how wonderfully well parent conferences went, and then she’d ask, with gleeful concern, how Mom had enjoyed hers. Of course, when Thea talked to teachers, she heard things like, “A joy to have in class!”
When my mama went to conferences, she heard…
…Not working up to potential.
…More interested in socializing than in schoolwork.
…Attitude needs adjustment.
The Mom/Thea kid-comparisons lasted until well after we all left school. Some of us bumbled around, discovering ourselves. Some others charted a course, followed it, and quickly secured career advancement.
I leave it to you to guess whose kids did which.
One day–I was teaching middle school at the time–I stopped in to visit mom and interrupted her on the phone with Thea.
“Well,” my mother was sputtering, “well, maybe my kids aren’t all successful. But at least I think they’re HAPPY!”
She slammed down the phone and turned and smiled at me. “Coffee?” she asked.
I certainly didn’t debate it with my mother at the time, but her statement has stayed with me all those years. What IS being a success, after all, if it isn’t being happy?
But happiness shouldn’t be a contest, and, I’m thinking, neither should success. This whole line of thought gets me to pondering the people I’ve known whom I can honestly and unequivocally call successful. The trappings that society considers requisite for success don’t really apply. To be successful, I think, you have to set goals and meet them–or, have the wisdom to know your goals are wrong and change them. To be successful, you have to be willing to try and fail and try again–and know that failure is a real and potentially permanent possibility. To be successful, you need to know yourself and to have the courage to stay true to whatever it is that means.
It’s the rare person who does all that consistently. I don’t always, or even often, reach all those high notes.
But I’ve known folks who have, and did, and do.
I knew, for instance, Dan and Jessica, who never bought a single thing on time. They had seen the world–Dan had been in the service and stationed in Europe. I was so impressed that the little downstairs powder room in their lovely house sported a wooden sign that read, “WC.”
Ah, that’s class, I thought: who in the States calls their half bathroom a water closet? Dan and Jessica had traveled. They’d been there.
They had a houseful of books, a houseful of music, a houseful of art, and a house full of rich conversation. Dan was the maintenance guy at the little private school where I taught; he was a gifted ‘fixer,’ but never too busy to put down his tool belt to discuss the merits of a poem I’d just lettered on the bulletin board in the hallway. He was a poet himself, and he crafted odes to celebrate all kinds of events–entries and exits, commencements and commemorations. I remember his poem to celebrate the first time a goat visited the school, and I remember its historic refrain:
There’s goat doo-doo down in the hall.
Jessica taught; the two of them entertained; they continued to do some traveling; and together they raised three wonderful children. The first time they ever took out a loan was when the oldest one went off to college. And you can bet those bright, funny, hard-working kids worked their butts off, got and maintained scholarships, and paid back, in giant ways, their parents’ faith in them.
Long after we moved away, we learned that Dan had died, much too young. But what a lot of living he and Jessica packed into their years together–what integrity and passion. What laughter, and what fun.
In the Dictionary of Pam, when you look up ‘success,’ you’ll see pictures of Jessica and Dan.
I knew a man named Luke who had absolutely no reason to be happy, and yet he was. Luke was dying from AIDs by the time I met him; he dragged a long and hurtful past behind him. He’d made mistakes; he’d learned some big things–bigger things than most of us ever have to tussle with. He’d forged a fierce authenticity in a fire that had raged overly bright.
We met at a soup kitchen run by our church. I believed in organization and lists and volunteers signed up for shifts. I believed in meal planning and smart shopping and counting the cost. I believed our hands were the only hands God had on earth–and that we had better keep them washed and busy.
Luke believed–he really, really did–that God would provide, and that a spirit of radical hospitality was more important than counting out the chicken breasts. It was all, he would assure me, going to work out anyway.
The two of us worked the kitchen together for a couple of years. We drove each other crazy. We disagreed on lots of things–but never on the dignity of the people whom we served.
It worked out, as it turned out, really well.
Luke had a tiny apartment a block or so away from the church, which was good because he had no car. He had thrift shop clothes and hand-me-down furniture and he could tell you stories about winters, back during the time he lived in New England, when he couldn’t pay for heat and there was truly and literally nothing to eat in his house. He hadn’t acquired a whole lot of material goods since those days, but he had learned a deep and abiding faith, and he had come to accept himself. He kept a prayer wall, Luke did, where he wrote, in Sharpie, the names of everyone he cared about and everyone who needed prayer and all the causes he just ached to see resolved. He could see the lists from his bed; when he felt too sick to get up, he would stretch out and read the names and send up prayers.
And then, a day or two would pass, and Luke would feel better. He’d get up and come back to church and tell me I was too fussy, the way I peeled potatoes.
Luke bounced back so many times that I just knew, deep in my knowing, that he was going to be around a long, long time.
But of course, he wasn’t. He died way too young; he died way too soon. And he died having made a far-rippling impact. He taught a congregation about acceptance and grief and a kind of hospitality that says I don’t CARE how badly you smell or how funny you talk or whether your filters aren’t firmly in place: it just doesn’t matter. You are welcome here, my friend.
Luke lived his beliefs, stayed true through pain and neglect and deeply wounding sadness, found faith, built family, left us way too soon. Luke, too: success.
Successful? Hey, I know people.
I know someone, for instance, who works to reunite broken families. Her methods, which are creative, maybe a little unconventional, are sometimes frowned upon by a canon-bound establishment. But they are compassionate methods, and ones that keep people safe. They are methods that work. She often celebrates success.
I know a woman, born to wealth, who spent her career educating people to go out and build themselves better lives, and who, in retirement, insures her family’s funds help others.
I know a man who yearned, despite Fate’s other plans, to go to law school; he passed the Bar the week that he turned 50.
I know a school counselor who never gives up on her students–who pours her heart and soul and being into getting them on the path to success. Sometimes, she has to testify in court. But often, she is dancing at their weddings.
I know a woman who happens to have Stage Four cancer but has never–not for one day–let that define her.
I know a mother who survived the unthinkable suicide of a child; she now works to promote better understanding of mental health issues in young people.
I know a person who, deprived of the opportunity to have a traditional family, opened his arms to lost sheep and lonely souls. He built a family, person by person, heart by heart. It is one of the strongest, most loving family groups I’ve ever seen.
I know people who reach deep into the pits of their gifts and talents, and who bring up treasures clutched in both hands. They use their words, their music, their ability to teach, their compassion, their parenting skills, their creativity, their movement, their awareness. They have wrestled with the Meaning Demon long and hard. They have been victorious. Their words and sounds and touch and thoughts enrich the lives of those they reach and nurture and respond to.
Still wrestling with the Demon myself, I am blessed with all these role models. I hope to reach that plateau, that victory platform, where I can join them and say, at last, “Success!”
Right now, I can say, “Working on it.”
But my mother was right. Mostly, and blessedly, I’ve been happy.
I know some other people, too, ones for whom the whole idea of wrestling was too much–the ones who turned away, who settled, who–it seems to me, anyway–gave up. They are not happy, those ones. But neither are they doomed.
I firmly believe this: it is NEVER too late. And there is always something you can do.
Success is understanding the hands we’ve been dealt and looking at all the options of playing those cards. Then it’s picking the option that matches what we know of ourselves and our gifts, our values and our yearnings, and committing ourselves to playing that game, whole of heart and single of mind.
It has nothing–success doesn’t–to do with money or clothes or cars or trappings. But you can have those and still be successful.
Mom is gone.
Thea is gone.
I stay in touch with one of Thea’s kids on Facebook; she’s out West, but we keep each other informed. So I know that, in her siblings’ lives, there have been divorces and estrangements, disappointments, arraignments, and muddles. But they have all come through okay. Their lives might not look exactly like the triumphs they’d envisioned back in the day when Thea and Mom compared notes. But they are all, my old friend tells me, true and strong and happy.
Ah. So. Competition over. There is plenty of room on the victory platform, plenty of space for each of us to climb up and grab those sashes and slide them over our heads. The music will pulse; we’ll all be bouncing, hands flailing joyfully, the silky word ‘success’ flared across our chests and bellies.
It’s crowded, that platform, with successful people; they dazzle me with their grins and their dance moves. They inspire. Wait for me! I call to them. I think I’m getting there!
And then I go back to the wrestling.