Lessons in Failure
When my high school mentor passed on, I went to her Celebration of Life. This amazing woman, my English teacher, gave me so much in so many ways over the years I knew her. Clare Nunes was wise, witty, warm, inspirational, delightful, devastatingly funny. I loved her and she loved me. One of my favorite of her sayings, “maybe we should all just be mediocre and live happily ever after,” stays with me always.
But she said something else to me. Actually, she wrote it in a letter. She wrote, “Some stars just shine brighter. And you’re one of those stars.“
Coming from a blazingly bright star, that meant a great deal.
But let me paint a picture for you of me, this “bright star,” showing up at that Life Celebration.
I came to the chapel with my four children in tow because I had no childcare for them and I didn’t want to miss the event. Having recently emerged from the wreckage of my divorce, I was still putting my life back together–and that’s literal as much as it is metaphoric. As happens for many divorced women, my economic situation plunged post divorce, complicated even more so by the fact that during the marriage I worked “in the home”–the kind of work you don’t get paid for. And so I schlepped all of my children to this service in the best dress up clothes we could find. I would describe them as disheveled, disorganized and grumpy.
I have had many good moments with my children, but this was not one of them.
The backdrop here is not just any place but the gorgeous campus of Concord Academy, the private high school I attended. I want you to know I was the only mother who’d brought four children (um, the only person who brought any children) to that service and some of them refused to take off their messy winter coats and some of them would not tie their shoes and some of them kept saying ‘WHHHHHYYYYY are we here????”
At the reception, feeling myself as 100% the black sheep of that formal gathering, my children practically rolling on the floor and climbing the tables full of cheese and grapes, I had a conversation with a woman who also knew and loved Clare. I told her about my relationship with Clare and all she meant to me, mentioning that I’d gone on to major in English and publish two novels (and if you don’t know that about me, now you do!)
(You can even buy them. They’re funny. You’ll like them.) Buy This Little Mommy, Buy I’ll Take What She Has
When I told here I’d had two novels published by Bantam she said, and with a tone of irritation, “How does it feel to have made it?“
Made it? Let’s be honest. About that time in my life, I looked like this, like a woman holding on for dear life. Like a mess.
“Made it,” was not what had happened to me. To the contrary, since my days of being that “brighter star” my mentor could see, I’d done a remarkable amount of failing.
Yes, I had published two novels–but they hardly became best sellers. (My amazon rankings could break a heart.) Yes, I did have four children–something I had always, always, and forever wanted. But I also had a divorce. And a pretty darn ugly one at that. I was eating off of donated spoons and plates. At Christmas time, I went to Big Lots to buy those fun fake candles to put in your windows and I couldn’t afford to put them in ALL the windows of our house, so I only put them in the front and the side, figuring no one could see the back. I’d been shopping around a novel for years, having lost both my agent and editor, and no one was picking the book up.
Even as she asked me that question, my four year old was ramming into my legs and saying, “Daddy says you don’t have a real job. Daddy says you’re stealing all of his money.” (There was a lot of that. A lot.) (And probably she wasn’t saying those words at that exact moment and probably it wasn’t her that said those words, probably an older kid, but you get the picture.)
I didn’t know how to answer because I felt confident that I was a failure and an excellent one at that. I mean, I was dressing up as a condom to get followers on Instagram. So, “made it?” Not so much.
“Failure cannot be understood in theory, only in practice, sometimes over and over and over again.”
Really, I’ve become professional at failing, an expert in my field.
When I think about all the things I have tried that haven’t succeeded–little business ideas, books, classes, workshops, projects, marriages, poems, stories, house projects, and so on, I can and sometimes do indulge in feeling badly. But the reason I have had so many failures is because I always attempt.
Swami Kripalu, a beloved teacher of mine (though I never knew him alive), teaches that we should do “experiments in love,” and, like a scientist, observe the results.
I have certainly been one to do “experiments in love” and experiments in life. One of my novels I sent out to more than forty agents. That’s a lot of people writing back to you and saying “NO.” When I compare myself to others, which I can also do very well, when I’m in the right mood, and especially thanks to social media, no number I ever have, make, do, or accomplish seems enough.
The other choice, though, is to not experiment, to not try, to not have gone to Clare’s celebration because I was too embarrassed to bring my very children-acting-children into that civilized place.
That’s simply not the choice for me.
Perhaps the rubber hits the road when I stand back and see that “brighter star” and “success by worldly standards” are not the same things. I always want to be that “brighter star,” not simply for my own sake, but to live into what Clare and others have seen in me. To be that for others, as she was for me. To keep on shining, despite the sense that my light is dim and a bit sticky, like someone rubbed a lollipop all over it. Because a brighter star may or may not have made it.
“Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.” –Oscar Wilde
Clare never saw me as mediocre. She never saw me as ordinary. What a gift. I think, had she been at her own Life Celebration, she would have loved my kids in khakis and sneakers and dresses with tights two sizes too small. I imagine, if she’d seen me then, she still would have seen a star.
Now I’m sure that making it feels really, really good. I look forward to that moment.
In the meantime, I will continue to excel as an expert in my field.
You are a brave and beautiful star ⭐️ to open your heart and share your human vulnerability .. the wonderful thing is you have chosen to identify with the bright star while acknowledging human
“ failures “
Thank you, Lil! You are also a brave and beautiful star. It’s so powerful to have people in our lives who really see that light in us because they help to bring it out into the world and amplify the good and you are a light-see-er, seeing the good and being the good and sharing the good.
Love your insightful sharing, and the “experiments in love” suggestion. And you always make me laugh!
I’m glad you laughed! Sometimes stories like this come off more serious on paper then spoken and the laugh is *essential*!
Oh Sam, such a great story that illuminates the ‘both/and’ truth of this life! I heartily agree we must accept (if not embrace lol) ‘failure’ as a courageous attempt! Success does not always look like what the overarching culture describes.
Your ✨Light✨shines strongly and those of us who bask in that light are grateful. 💙
Yes, we need these stories. It’s always great to hear the stories that say, “I set my book to 40 agents and then the 41st took me on,” but we also need the “I sent my book to 40 agents and no one took it on and I shined my little light anyway.:-)
Oh, Sam, this is so perfect. You are certainly one of the brightest stars I know, and an inspiration to me whenever I think of you, which is, wonderfully, more and more often.
I laughed at the cheeky ending, and must also state for the record that you do indeed excel as an expert in your field, and that field is as multifaceted as you: mothering, mentoring, ministering, yoga teaching, writing, and making others laugh. Failure is a pretty great facet to claim, too, actually. It’s landing as both funny and profound.
By the way, did I ever tell you I read “This Little Mommy Stayed Home” when Erin was about two years old? It was one of the things that kept me sane during that crazy-making time of being a SAHM to a toddler. I loved it. And I was, and still am, in awe that you managed to carve a stable routine for your creative life, with such young kids! It still amazes me, because now you have five, and you’re more productive than I think any human I know.
Oh, wait, Amy, I am laughing now at the thought that I am “more productive than I think any human [you] know” because my 16 year old says to me, “Do you ever do anything?”
Thank you for this loving and lovely comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed This Little Mommy. Writing it was definitely survival!
P.S. No one does funny and profound like you, Sam. Not an accident, clearly!
Feeling pretty good about myself after that comment. 🙂