I learned the other day that one of my mother’s Christmas novels, Let It Snow, is being made into a Hallmark Christmas movie. A very exciting announcement for a woman who, at the tender age of let’s say less than eighty but in shouting distance of it, enjoys a fantastic success. Her thirty four novels include another book transformed into a movie, Spirit Lost—her only ghost novel.
She has reached the coveted position of being a New York Times bestselling novelist—more than once. Her books have been translated into German, Finnish, Hebrew, Russian, Turkish, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Serbo-Croatian, Swedish, Danish, and Polish. She’s beloved to her fan base which, on Facebook, includes more than 70,000 followers.
This is the grandmother my children know. This the Nanny of fame. We visit her and sleep in rooms with bookshelves sprinkled with the various editions of her novels. When she told my oldest daughter about the book-to-movie transformation (Hallmark is calling it Nantucket Noel), my daughter took it in stride. Nanny is a big deal and she knows it.
But here’s a secret about my mother. And it’s one that is so critical and relevant and powerful that I have to tell not just my children but everyone else, all my yoga students, all my friends, all my followers, all my ever-so-much smaller fan base.
Back when I was a girl, my mother had years when she did not sell a book. More than that, she had years when she did not make a dollar.
Not a dollar.
She often played the Donna Summer classic for us, “She Works Hard for Her Money.” And she did. For many years a single mother with only the unpredictable income from her novels to support us, she worked hard and then she worked harder.
I wonder, in all those years when my mother did not have success, did not have a Hallmark contract, did not make any money off of her writing, what did she think? Did she think, “I’m a failure. I should give up. I’ll never make it.” Did she, like us, think, “this is a sign that I shouldn’t write. This is a sign that I am no good.”
My mother has published her entire adult life, but her largest commercial success has in fact come in the more recent decade. I know that she has written because she loves it and because as a girl she wanted to do one thing and one thing only: write.
But in the modern moment in time, instant success is the measure of all success. Big money is the marker of achievement. Speaking with my teenagers the other day, I reminded them, as we discussed colleges, that I myself had gone to the best women’s college in the country followed by graduate school at Yale Divinity School where I received a full merit scholarship. I explained that I came in as one of the top 10% of new students. There was even a name for my group of scholars—though I have long forgotten it.
My oldest child looked at me as if he’d never heard this information before. Then he said, “But then why aren’t you….” He searched around for the word.
“More?” I asked. “More important? More successful? More full of money?”
“Yeah, I guess,” he said.
He wanted to know why I hadn’t done more with my degrees, I suppose. I explained to all my children that I made multiple conscious decisions about how I wanted to live, how I wanted to serve and who I wanted to be. It has been my i
ntegrity to keep walking that path—as yoga teacher, minister, spiritual teacher and mother—for twenty years.
My mother and I, in many ways, have little in common. But this she taught me, this internal dignity of purpose and calling. When I feel like giving up, which is so often, I think of her. When I think of the 30 agents I’ve sent my new novel to and the long list of rejections, I think of her. When I think of my Youtube channel and how mysterious it is to me that some people have a million followers but I can barely amass 200, I think of her. When I find myself working with the smallest of groups and the smallest of dollars, I think of her.
And I don’t think of her at this moment—here, now, reaching, perhaps, the height of her career. I think of her working in her study in our house in Williamstown having no idea if she would publish again or where the money would come from.
It is more powerful than the simple never give up message, but it is not different. I want my children to know the version of my mother who I knew so that they can take that lesson with them everywhere they go. We aren’t just people who simply succeed. The time, the devotion, the effort, the energy, the perseverance, these are the ingredients of my mother’s tremendous success. And also the absolute love for what she does.
What would have happened if she did stop writing?
For me and you, and those of us not finding ourselves with the latest USA Today bestseller—or whatever name we may give the success we long to have—what is critical is to measure our days by their substance not their dollar amount. And, if we love what we do, to not stop doing it.
Word by word and line by line, a life is built, a story made. It is tremendous that she gets to enjoy this success but I want to remember, and I want my children to know, she did not do it for the praise. To work at what we love, isn’t it always it’s own reward?
We none of us know where we will end up if we keep going. And if we love what we do, to keep going is to live the life we’re here to live.