Thursday, January 29, 2015

Inside and outside

Can you be inside and outside at the same time?

I think this is where I live.

I think this is where most women live.

- from “When Women Were Birds”, Terry Tempest Williams

The passage refers to the time when the author landed herself in jail for a night, unable to pay her speeding ticket, and it struck a chord with me. I found myself nodding to the sentences: yes, this is where I live.

No, not in jail. But inside and outside. Not physically, even though the limitations of the inside feels real sometimes. At the start of the year, I was gung ho about my resolutions. Having eschewed them for many years - nah, I’m not the type to make resolutions - I had an earnest desire to pursue something this year.

Perhaps it’s because this is the year I turn the big 4-0. Suddenly there’s an urgency for dreams and convictions. Like someone had set a deadline, and I’m finally attuned to the countdown. Tick tock, tick tock to 40. Isn’t this when we run marathons? Push ourselves to be all we can be? Reflect on the last four decades and try to make something of what we’d learned?

On the outside, I take my girls to school, I tidy the messes that come with living a six- and three-year-old, I freelance part-time in the solitude of my home while everyone’s away, working on their dreams and shaping the rest of their lives, and sometimes it feels like plenty. I look around me and I think, how lucky I am to have this life.

But on the inside, I think, is this it? More importantly, is this enough? And I’m often torn. There are times when I think I should do more, be more. But that requires work, and it requires a certain courage that I’ve convinced myself over the years that I don’t have. That I don’t need because I’m happy. Or so I tell myself.

And so I shirk from the responsibilities of wanting to be more, content to hold the fort at home while I support the dream chasers in my house. A cop out really, because then I don’t need to put the work in and face my own fears of failure. What if I can’t be more? What if this really is it for me?

The resolution dissolves with each passing day. The urgency of the ticking clock becomes a distant sound, like the train that rumbles through the town in the middle of the night. Who am I kidding anyway?

But then I read this passage the other day from “Lit”, a memoir by Mary Karr, who was reacting to her aging mother’s hurtful remarks that rose from her fear of leaving and losing her home of over 40 years:

But I spent all day throwing out all the canvases you never had the balls to paint on. Every shit-sucking day of my whole life, you blamed me and Daddy and Lecia for you not painting. The truth is: you never had the balls to paint, Mother.

Ouch. What if I become that person? Bitter at 80 because I never had the guts to pursue the things I’d long-ago envisioned for myself? But then again, what am I pursing? Not fame. Not fortune, exactly. Success?

Success in what?

I have not yet determined what that is for me, so how do I even start setting my sights for a goal that isn’t even clear to me. And there is a discourse about success that I don’t think I need to get into, but you know the gist - isn’t success relative anyway? If you’re doing what makes you happy, whatever it may be, aren’t you, in a way, succeeding?

That’s what I hope to teach my daughters anyway. Do what you love, so you will love what you do, because I think that’s integral to living simply and therefore, happily. But is this where I am?

When I showed up at Little Miss’ school the other day to pick her up from an after-school activity (running, much to my surprise, when she suggested she’d like to be involved; this girl who hated soccer because of “all that running!”), we ended up at the park with three other moms and their kids. An impromptu playdate on a beautiful 75-degree January day. Our kids were happy, and I was happy.

An impromptu playdate. Such a simple thing, but I’m also aware that it’s such a privilege to be able to afford to do that. It’s not lost on me that many moms would probably love to be where I was then.

Yet, when I read or hear about my friends’ career successes, even though I’m truly happy for them, there is a nagging doubt that emerges from a deep and dark place within me - why can’t I be that too?

If I lean in, according to Sheryl Sandberg, can I also be out in the sun with my girl? What riches could feel better than the warmth of the sun on my skin and the joy in my daughter’s face that January day in the park?

I hope to raise my girls to be strong and independent so they may pursue their own goals, but actions speak louder than words, as they say. What will they learn from me? What can I teach them about achieving their dreams when I never had the balls to paint myself?

Or is this it? Is this life of playdates and soccer leagues my canvas? Does this not teach my girls that they can live this simple life and be happy. Isn’t this enough?

I’ve been drawn to memoirs recently - “Wild”, “Glitter and Glue”, “Lit”, “When Women Were Birds” - and I realized that central to each person’s story in all of these books is the author’s relationship with her mother. I hadn’t planned it that way - all of these books found their way to me quite by accident. Yet here they are, each successful author, examining their lives as daughters, describing their mom and the role they played in their lives, each with their versions of this complex relationship with their mothers.

Not everyone’s mom was successful in the traditional sense. In fact, one of them was downright abusive and crazy. Many were loving and supportive, despite the broken homes. And these moms - no matter who they were, how they were, and what they were - all shared one thing in common: they had a daughter who, regardless of circumstances, pursued her dreams and succeeded in becoming a writer.

I am comforted by this fact - a mother’s career success (whatever that means to each individual) does not shape her daughter’s future (whew!) although it could certainly be an influence. Good for the daughters. Really. I am glad for them. Because what mother doesn’t want her kid to reach great heights, to go beyond her own wildest hopes?

But what of the mothers? What of this mother? What is my great height, my wildest hope? Will I ever get there?

Or am I already there, only I don’t notice because I’m too distracted by watching others chasing theirs?