Monday, December 17, 2007

Delusions of Grandeur

Yesterday afternoon, a dozen or so of HOBB's graduate students traipsed through the Urban Bungalow for a holiday brunch. What struck me instantly was their sincerity...and youth. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they were not much older than our oldest son, 23-year-old Big Babe, now living the life of the expatriate American writer-at-large in Berlin.

The presence of so many young adults who technically could have been my children made me feel a bit like The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. The presence of Little Babe, Middle Babe and Alfie the Pomeranian completed the domestic tableau.

Then again, in my high black boots, black tights and black and purple dress, I felt more like the Bungalow Babe Who Lived in a Platform Shoe and the tableau was more punk than pastoral.

After the students had all cleared out, I fell into conversation with one of HOBB's colleagues. A former editor of a community newspaper, her part-time position at the university was her only current means of employment. She had three small children whom she was devoted to raising, nevertheless, her minimalistic working status gave her "an inferiority complex" around her colleagues at the school, she confessed, many of whom were high-powered, high-profile, high-achieving journalists.

While I was inclined to protest the very notion that she should suffer from intimations of inferiority, as a forty-something who has been waiting for her "real" life to begin for, oh, the past twenty-something years, I knew exactly what she meant. For a variety of reasons -- some very different from hers (I've been horribly over-employed for much of my adult life, for instance), others similar (I am often in the company of well-known, successful writers) -- I, too, have had a complex about my personal achievements.

And I insist on the legitimacy of my feelings. After all, though I've worked hard most of my adult life and kept our family solvent and even been reasonably successful in my chosen field, what I've really wanted is something quite different: reams of articles, stories, a bestselling book or two, a writer's life, a writer's legacy.

And though I am prone to falling into the gloom of under-achievement, I still believe that my life can change course any second now.

We talked for a while, this mother/journalist and I, trading details of our lives. She described herself as coming late to journalism, to marriage, to motherhood. My trajectory was completely opposite, I said. I did everything early. Married at 22, I became a mother at 23 and freelanced my way as a journalist until it became clear that I needed to get a full-time job or my children would go naked and starve.

I changed professional course when I was 32, opting for full-time work outside of journalism.

Because of financial constraints, I didn't have the opportunity to pursue my writing, I said.

No, she corrected me. You did. But you chose something else at that stage of your life.

Her honesty took me by surprise. I resisted the idea, then considered it and finally embraced it. She was correct. I decided to pursue another means of income for a variety of well-considered reasons.

Anyway, there we were on a frigid and overcast Sunday afternoon in mid-December: two writers with six children between us, confessing our feelings of inadequacy. Physically, we could not have been more opposite; one of us is small with long blond hair, the other tall with short dark hair. One of us feels under-employed, the other over-employed. One of us is raising small tykes, the other has two children who are no longer minors and another on the verge of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I don't know her age exactly but I doubt there is a decade between us.

I look at this woman and see an enviable, balanced life -- marriage, children, a part-time job at an Ivy League institution, an apartment in the greatest city in the world. And I cannot guess how I appear to her but know that similar elements are also present in my life.

And while I will happily accept praise for any of my achievements -- including my ability to pair high black boots with a purple and black summer dress -- I retain the right to hold onto my sense of sadness in the face of unfulfilled personal ambitions because it is this very sorrow that has the power to propel me forward.

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