It can take a lifetime to realize your true worth. Sometimes I still feel I am on the verge of determining what, exactly, that is. Most of the time, despite self-doubts that knock around in my head at inconvenient times, I have a handle on it. For starters: I’m a human being who is glad to still be here. Who is hopeful I can carry out at least one kindess a day. And I love to create. But there are those times when I am not so sure that is enough.
If one has siblings who are super achievers, the weighing in can feel a bit aggravating and arduous. I don’t mean in terms of status and prestige, although it is tempting to oversimplify and stop right there. So, for example, calculation of my life income via nearly thirty years being a counselor and in other human services positions is easy and swift. It indicates my social security is nothing to broadcast but, let’s face it, every bit helps. When I called my sister she responded, with frank sympathy, “I’m sorry.” There was a pause on the line because, in fact, I was thrilled that there was more than a few bucks coming my way. I didn’t know quite what to say next. She knows my husband has done well enough; we will get by. Or figure things out as we go, as more and more do in later life. But this is a person who has made savvy and multiple investments. The fact is, I didn’t manage to accumulate what the rest of my siblings did. I trod different paths. I was busy first surviving and then, relieved at last, paying bills readily, helping out kids and enjoying modest vacations a couple times a year. And being grateful. Once you have been poor, you do not forget blessings.
This came to the fore of my thinking before all four of them (plus spouses and my adult kids et al) arrived for my daughter’s wedding. I looked around our apartment, aghast. I was throwing a pre-wedding, large brunch for our daughter and family. I scanned the main rooms and saw the place again as others must. And felt compelled to buy new curtains and exchange the old, dust-expelling vacuum I’d used for eighteen years for a fancy new model. Cleaning took days, wherein I found lots of things I hoped I would. And hoped I would not. And then I found myself trolling the sort of store I usually avoid. It was a place where you drop good money on decorative items. It was introduced to me by another sister and niece who like to shop there to change up their already gorgeous homes. I had no idea it existed until then.
I roamed awhile before I was willing to part with nearly forty-five dollars for a cake stand, small fabric and painted wooden pumpkins for my big dining room table, fake and colorful fall leaves to spread around them and a ceramic candy dish that looked seasonal. Okay, it was another pumpkin-type, but white, with a lid. Rarely do I purchase things that intentionally reflect the season. I bring things home from the woods, or beach sometimes. But I was about to perk things up in my humble home! It felt so foreign. Usually my idea of decorating is buying new books to stack neatly on and around various tables and a desk. And flowers, always bright ones in interesting vases, with some good art and photos on the walls. And frig. Yes, still, at this age. (I also cut out magazine pictures to tape on the laundry room wall. Something to look at as the clothes spin.) But I was willing to venture into a new direction to spruce things up a bit. To feel better about “entertaining”, such as it was.
All this extra fuss for my own family–which has been here several times over the years, of course. It was a special event, true. But I could not escape that familiar, uncomfortable feeling that my siblings got to where I once expected to end up. But never did. And that it mattered, still. Not like it did when I was thirty or forty, no, yet I was left with a niggling of anxiety. Then I bought and arranged the flowers and set them about and felt…more at home. My cozy spot in the world. I excitedly prepared with my daughters and husband, laid the table with a favorite yellow tablecloth and matching and stray pieces of stainless. I lit a white candle in the glass owl candle holder. Around which were the fancy pumpkins and leaves.
There was a time when I was ashamed of what I failed to accomplish. That I wasn’t a professional musician, too–or just a bone fide, high-paid professional with the Italian leather heels and smart suits to prove it. That I hadn’t finished my Bachelor’s degree. I had one and a half more years to go but it never seemed feasible. I was swamped with raising five children under the age of six while my husband advanced his career. He was often gone so I learned quickly to take care of household and children, adapt to one more town after yet another company transfer. I struggled with chronic health issues not yet correctly diagnosed. My friends were the mothers who dropped off their own kids before hurrying off to jobs. I grew up in the sixties and became a mother in the seventies–this was a time to be breaking waves, Doing Something Important! And I, feminst and rebel that I had been before marriage, was now a housewife, raising a bunch of fascinating, mischievous, fussing kids.
So I labored over self-improvement in smaller ways. Tried to bury the disappointment in myself. Found solace in nature, the kids on their own treaure hunts. Still, I developed an alcohol problem after a few too many of this and that to ease me into dreamless sleep or numbed busy-ness. That was not a good learning experience but learn I did, in many hard ways.
I did return to college a few times. One more class, a few more credits. Many more classes and trainings for my eventual paid jobs. But there was usually a more pressing need of our money or my time. As I organized the house or ferried the children to one activity or another I was haunted by my father’s voice from years past: “You’re really not finishing college?”
But I dreamed. There lurked, still, that fervent desire and visceral need to create something, a book of poetry, a painting, a dance, more music. Even a noticeably better world, yes, please God. Between laundry loads that were completed by one a.m., errands tightly scheduled and child rearing, little stories made their way from mind to paper. I was struck with sudden melodies and lyrics that I configured and sang when the house was empty. And one of the happiest of winters was when I took a correspondence course on writing for children and youth–and got thorough critiques and encouraging feedback. Yet somehow, deep down, the confidence I’d enjoyed as a child and youth did not return with enough force. I tried to stop hungering for artistic pursuits so deeply. To no avail. Making crazy fun art with the kids was a joy, dancing and singing up and down the stairs with them was freeing for us all. But too often it was like I had lost my one great love– despite all the other wonderments in life.
As parents know, it can be quite demanding enough to get food on the table and children safely tucked into bed. Add also: to guide, corral, hug, discipline, instruct, reassure, cheer on, nurse and hold them up with an underlying and undaunted spiritual faith. All this counted to me, every moment. I hadn’t planned on being a mother but when it happened I felt like I’d hit the jackpot with five. Especially since two of the children were little ones my husband had started to raise and the three others had arrived despite my being informed they would never happen. Does anyone need an immediate lesson on altruistic and undying love? With kids as both students and teachers, you must dive in and swim, making certain they’re close by at every turn and dip. Your frenzied focus becomes adoration in no time without your even realizing it. You also discover how much courage can be summoned.
So it went. There are countless untold stories of women–and men–who’ve had dreams that seemed to drop away. Who so gave to their families yet also craved what called them creatively, artistically. Who look into themselves and fear there will be parts of their souls missing sooner or later. That they may even disappear. Tragically.
Well, the truth is: this is nonsense. Such a potential fate seems suitably dramatic when you are younger. Long before you endure the grief of unexpected losses and live through real life nightmares– yet also unearth resources within and without that you never once suspected would be there. The secret answer to the dilemma of “everyday life versus art” is that you just do what matters most, for whatever reason you choose. And it can all become holy. It is in how you see it, become it. I have primarily loved my children–first. It wasn’t hard. Loved life, itself, which sometimes felt harder. But nothing has been left out, not laughter or tears, not designing ways to solve tenacious problems or being surprised by miracles. It remains each day lived authentically that has mattered. This moment-by-moment creative act of becoming a full human being. Taking it all in. The beautiful, boring and unattractive; the sweet, spicey and bitter. And making–or letting–all the unknown or noteworthy things happen.
Who I was became who I am, a person with diverse interests and skills, talents and limits. Not once have I regretted hurtling myself into happy curiosity. Or nurturing a passion for mercy, a belief in kindness. Persistence. Faith in that power of Divine Love even when it seemed the distance between God and myself was so great I had to shout for help. Those, I would have not forgiven myself for failing to claim. It’s certain my life has been marked by failures. Yet what I didn’t learn from well has come to matter much less as time goes by.
Where did this post begin? Oh, our front door kept swinging open. My husband was finishing up the eggs, bacon, sausage. My family brought top-notch scones, pastries, muffins–of course. I got coffee brewed. Orange juice filled my mother’s old, pretty pitcher. The place vibrated with chatter and laughter; there were hands extended, chairs added to make the circle bigger.
As they arrived, I completely forgot most of them are better educated (well, my children mostly are, too), have made more money, have owned more real estate, have travelled the world many times between them and, thus, speak more languages (in more ways than one). My siblings and I may not have so much in common besides blood ties: large, blue or softly hazel eyes and musical ability. I guess I should include a mulish stamina despite physical and other challenges. And a manner of speaking that reflects our upbringing, growing up within a culture of, well, culture–it can seem rather too civilized, perhaps. And then there is how we take over conversations, insinuating there is a fascinating story unfolding (often true). How we can shrug off everyday ridiculousness. And, come to think of it, a concern for the well being of others. But our defects of character? Don’t tempt me. Loyalty forbids I divulge too many secrets tonight. For that, there is fiction to write!
It looks like we are more like family than not. You can see how I love them, bottom line, even after all that has changed, even distanced us. They are valuable and deeply valued. And so am I.
So we hugged, gabbed and ate our fill and the daughter about to be married felt great that her extended family came from afar to celebrate with us. Me, too. Thank You, Lord, for such good moments and more to come.