I’ve been accused of being many things. But being totally thrilled with myself is probably the accusation I cherish most. And because it came from a friend whom I love dearly, I know it has little to do with lack of humility. She din’t so much accuse me of being thrilled with myself as of being thrilled with my life and everyone and everything in it.
What greater gift is there?
I took my puppy to the groomers this morning and of course I posted pictures on Facebook. And while staring smitten at said pictures I couldn’t stop thinking what an absolutely gorgeous baby boy he is and how very lucky we were to find him. I mean truly, if I know anything at all, I know that this is the best dog in the world. And I mean sweetest disposition, dying to please you, squeezable, huggable, insanely adorable best dog in the world. And that’s when I was reminded of my friend’s words. Maybe, I thought in a moment of sparkling wisdom, just maybe, he isn’t as superior to all living dogs past and present as I think he is. But truly, what a gift to feel so unarguably that he is!
And I’ll admit it. I do kinda feel that way about my babies, my nieces and nephews, the hubby, my parents, my in-laws, my friends, you know what I’m getting at here, don’t you? Being thrilled with my sphere does seem to afflict me in large enough doses to border on annoying. This general ‘thrilledness’ however, has recently taken to refusing to extend its band of joy over one part of my life. My writing. And if you’re a writer you’re going, ‘well, du-uh.’ Because what kind of flesh and blood writer would I be if I were thrilled with what I spend hours and days and years squeezing my soul into? It’s not like I’m never thrilled with it. Especially when I keep a safe distance from words like ‘thrilledness,’ I do suspect some of it is good. And this is what keeps me hooked. Albeit struggling on the line like the trout who was stupid enough to be attracted to the bait in the first place.
Why have I never met a writer who looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Oh I just love the brilliance that rains on the page each time I open up my laptop,’ or even a simple, ‘Gosh, I love what I write’? Pop your head into a writer group and you’re more likely to hear how hard it is, how crazy, how lonely, how impossible. ‘Why do we do it?’ is a question we writers love to ask. Because it’s like taking our laptops to Starbucks, it’s what makes us writers.
But of course we all know why we really do it. We do it because it’s so much bloody fun. And because we do think we rain brilliance on the page every now and again. And then we quake in terror when we recognize this conceited thought, because the self doubt is so much safer than loving what we love and then knowing that it might not sell, it might get panned by critics, it might be loved by none other than just us and our moms.
As we slave away at our keyboards, twin monsters shimmy on our two shoulders. Self-doubt and old fashioned superstition. Yup, superstition. No matter how unsuperstitious we believe we are, we are terrified of tempting fate into taking away any success we might dare to celebrate.
I once had the gall to call something I wrote “flipping brilliant” and then I was immediately struck by a lightning bolt and accosted with self doubt for months and months, because something had to balance out this unbalanced bout of good fortune, right?
My first reaction after selling my books, once the shaking, weeping, throwing my arms around random strangers in glee had passed, was being enveloped in the strangest dark cloud. I utterly befuddled myself. Here I was, my dearest dream coming true, and I was happy, really I was, but it was a happiness shrouded in a weird sort of terror. Suddenly, there was this solidarity that poured out from all my published friends. They knew exactly what I was feeling. For all the times that I had wanted to yell, ‘What is wrong with you?’ into their faces when they had looked stressed and scared and generally knotted up in tension, suddenly all of it made sense.
This internal drama I wish I could describe better continued for weeks. With everything from the fear of my contract being withdrawn, to my agent suddenly realizing she had made a mistake, to never being able to think of a third book, to bizarre images of truly hideous covers on my books, danced around in my brain like those Bollywood numbers I love so much. I knew something was terribly wrong with this picture. I knew I was doing something horribly stupid but I couldn’t pinpoint the cause of my own bizarre reaction.
And then one day I heard my son tell my brother about some child in school who was riding his high horse and treating everyone else like the horse’s droppings. This is what my brother said to my son: “Remember, child, whatever goes up must come down.”
Every idiom ever thrown at me as a child spun around me like those numbers that spin around those mathematical geniuses in movies. ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ ‘The higher they rise the harder they fall.’ ‘For every success there is a price to pay.’ Pound of flesh. Pound of flesh. Pound. Of. Flesh. Is this what I was teaching my children? Certainly, I’d repeated the ‘no free lunches’ wisdom to them often enough. And most definitely this was what I was taught as a child. No wonder I was freaking out. The fall was coming. The flesh was waiting to be claimed. Had I even struggled hard enough to feel this great?
Bulbs popped all around my head. When philosophers tell us we fear success this is what they mean. When self help gurus tell us to stop holding ourselves back, this is what they mean. When we indulge in self sabotage, this is what we are doing. When Oprah Winfrey famously said she had made the conscious decision to be okay with what the universe was bestowing upon her, this is what she was dealing with.
So really, my bizarre reaction was about courage. It was about opening myself up to the possibility of loss. To accept the joy in success you have to acknowledge the success and consequently accept the possibility of what exists not existing anymore. And that’s the scariest thing. If you sell a book, it can bomb. If you write one winner, you may never be able to write another. Outside of writing, if you have a great job, you could lose it. If you feel great, you could get sick. If you drive a fancy car, you could crush it. The evil eye and every superstition ever created is a voice we give these fears. My mother won’t let me tell people my children are good kids, because that would open them up to the evil eye and who knows what awful things they might get into. Even as I write this, my fingers tremble with the possibilities of all the bad things I might set off by exposing my joy on the internet.
But maybe these platitudes and superstitions aren’t meant to be about cautiousness and fear but about separating joy from pride. The bad kind of pride. And relegating success where it belongs, outside of yourself. And relegating joy where it belongs, within yourself. Which brings me back to my puppy. Him wining the cutest puppy award at The Cutest Puppy in the World contest would be success. The way my heart glows when I look at this snub face and his wiggling bum when he wags his tail is joy. The A on my kid’s report card is success. The spark in their eye when they get excited about science and understand the mechanics of a quadratic equation, that’s joy. Selling my book is success, knowing that the hours and days and years I spent on that book went somewhere is joy, even more the fact that I would not exchange those hours and days and years for anything else is joy. Success can be gone from one moment to the next. Joy can also be gone, but only if we mistake it for success.
The gift isn’t that the puppy is cute or the husband adorable. The gift is being able to recognize the fact that this is so. The greater gift is being able to acknowledge it without fearing its loss.