Today, this morning, we asked Ronan, as we always do, “are you ready to start your baby day?” He always is of course; there are textured pillows to touch and hair to pull; there are cloth books to drool on and yoga poses to be done (happy baby). There is poop to be pooped; there are cooing conversations to initiate with us and with his grandparents. There are naps and walks and songs and sometimes a Dad-driven dance around the room to Bruce Springsteen (who is a god in our house). A baby day.
Today the U.S. celebrates the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Last year I was with K in Baltimore, pregnant, giving a speech to the girls at Roland Park Country School. I talked about MLK’s mission: to grant people the freedom to pursue their passions. The pursuit of happiness. Americans love this idea, this message. Maybe we feel special because the concept of “happiness” is written into our mandate as a people.
And it’s kind of a load of crap. I think we have completely misread MLK’s message, which is so much more nuanced than the idea that we can find – or even understand – what constitutes happiness. It’s been a problem, literally, for thousands of years.
In the Babylonian myth of Atrahasis, the earliest recorded version of the Flood story and a precursor to the Biblical story of Noah and his ark, the gods get fed up with lifting stones and digging out rivers. They want rest. They demand that other creatures do some of the work so they can hang out and be immortal and engage in some smiting or other violent pursuits. They stage a revolt, and eventually it is decided that some new creatures – humans, made from blood and dirt – will be created to do the shitty, backbreaking stuff. And so the gods get their freedom and the notion of human ambition is born.
Our country runs on the pursuit of achievement and ambition – on the effects of individual striving. It’s a capitalistic approach to vocation and purpose. For most of my life I have been an ambition addict, and I find fuel for this addiction everywhere I look. On bumper stickers (“My child is an honor student at —– School”); in the assumed joys of becoming an Avon saleswoman (“It’s amazing what you can achieve with a bit of passion and hard work; call 1-800-AVON!”); in the barrage of ads for diet products that always appear on January 1 (“5 weeks to a NEW YOU! Includes the cost of food!”). In 1981, as the poster child for the Wyoming March of Dimes, I was quoted in the local newspaper as saying, “if you believe in yourself, you can do anything.” Yikes.
Do more, be skinnier, get richer, be famous (and then be even more famous), get a bigger house and a bigger car and a hotter girlfriend and a better life. Be better. Behind this strive to achieve is, I believe, a deeper desire to be transformed. Everybody suffers from low self-esteem these days; nobody likes who they are. The standards for what is “normal” have become so formalized and yet so restrictive that people need a break from that horrible feeling of never being able to measure up to whatever it is that that they think will make them acceptable to other people and therefore to themselves. People get sick with this idea of change; I have been sick with it. We search for transformation in yoga retreats, juice fasts, drugs and alcohol, obsessive exercise, extreme sports, sex, etc. We are all trying to escape who we are, hoping that a better version of us is waiting just behind that promotion, that relationship, that dress size. Everyone needs to be pursuing something, right? Otherwise, who are we?
One summer I taught “gifted and talented kids” (I don’t believe in that moniker, as it almost always means rich kids, nothing more) at Stanford for a summer session. The class was called “Writing and Imagination,” and the kids in my class were smart and funny and of course, creative. (Several of them did complain to me that they had gotten stuck in my boring writing class because their math scores weren’t high enough.) Most of them were also curiously stressed out. They would write a story or a poem and then nervously show me what they’d written, asking, “Did I do it right?” I tried to explain to them that creativity allowed for variation; that there was no “right” way. They blinked at me and returned to their seats, often giving me the hairy eye because I’d refused to answer their question with a simple yes or no.
One girl, S, never asked me if her stories were “right” or “good.” They were, in fact, extraordinary. She took risks in terms of image and metaphor and plot. Sometimes she added beautiful pencil illustrations. Our classrooms were often mysteriously without air conditioning, and so we did a lot of our writing outside. S liked to be apart from the others. I’d see her sitting in a patch of shade away from the group; writing, yes, but also looking dreamily off into space. Once I watched her turn her hand over and over again in the stream of water from a fountain for almost five minutes. She smiled at me when she turned her stories in and then trotted off to the cafeteria, where every day, without fail, she ate French fries and a chocolate milkshake for lunch (ah, writers and their rituals). During mealtimes the other kids rattled off the different camps they were attending that summer: Shakespeare camp, Drama camp, Dude Ranch Camp (no joke), Art Camp. “That’s a lot of camps,” I said to one girl. “My parents like to get rid of me during the summer,” she said matter-of-factly, and turned away to fill her glass with a weird mixture of Coke and Sprite. S dipped her fries into her milkshake (two at a time, I noticed) and stared out the window. I wondered why she was so different from the others.
And then I met the kids’ parents. One mother made her son put a quarter in a jar during mealtimes if he didn’t use a new vocabulary word during conversation (she kept a list at the dinner table). Another father asked me, “Approximately how long, in terms of hours, should it take him to complete a publishable short story?” (My response – “Decades” – did not go over well.) Another mother told me that even though her son wasn’t as smart as her sister, she hoped that he could at least show some creative prowess; otherwise he’d never get into Harvard. The kids joined their parents during these conversations; they heard every critical word. And then there was S’s mom. This was her question: “Is my daughter having fun? She looks so happy right now.” S nodded. I told her I thought S was having fun, and that she was also quite talented. “Well,” said her mother, affectionately ruffling her daughter’s hair, “of course she is. We just want her to explore and have a good time this summer. And she likes to tell stories and she loves to read.” I was more than a decade away from being a mother, but I remember thinking that this mother’s attitude about her daughter’s particular gifts was a lesson in how to mother a child (and the way I had been mothered myself). I also worried that I would fail, that I would push my child too hard.
I’ve always struggled with vocation and ambition. I was a scrawny, crippled kid from the sticks with something to prove. In many ways being a writer is an absolutely ludicrous thing to do with your life. The publishing industry is ageist, sexist, unpredictable, and going through some kind of massive crisis that has otherwise levelheaded people shouting, “The book is dead!” It’s true that the bulk of the reading public wants wizards and werewolves or stories about people taking fabulous trips around the world in order to “find” themselves and their inner wisdom. But, as my writer friend C says, “hey, if I work ten hours at a crappy job and then come home to a messy house and kids and dinner to make, do I want to read my book about a child soldier or the damn Da Vinci Code?” He has a point: it doesn’t really matter. We make art, or we don’t. We write something we believe in, or we don’t. Either way, we will not be transformed. Publishing a book will not solve a struggling writer’s problems (in fact, it often makes things more complicated). Trying to be “the best” is a ludicrous, if relentless, pursuit. But we can know what we like to do, how we like to spend our time, and we can adjust our lives accordingly. Even this move will not transform us; the only possible transformation is our final one, and since nobody has returned from that experience to tell us what it’s like or what the ranking system might be in terms of how much money we make or what we look like, we don’t know the real meaning of all this striving, all this desire.
When Ronan missed some of his developmental milestones, I was desperate for him to catch up, and frustrated that he wasn’t doing all of the things on the pediatrician’s checklist. Now, of course, he never will. I was angry that I’d never get to experience so much of what I’d been looking forward to as a mom: marveling as he acquired language, teaching him to ski, traveling with him to all of the wonderful places his father and I have lived. I’m still angry about that, about the unfairness of it, but I also know this: he will never experience shame, regret, fear, self-loathing, worry, anxiety, or stress – all products of an ambitious search for happiness or recognition. He will never wish himself to be different.
So, no vocab jars for Ronan. No time limits on short stories. No pressure to be quicker or better or smarter than the other kids. If he wants to roll over, great; if not, he can lie on his stomach and coo until he’s tired of doing that, and then we’ll do something else. Today he can enjoy eating avocados (his favorite), touch the fabric of different pillows, my sweater, my hair (wet and dry), and read Fishy Tales (the best-selling book around here). He doesn’t have to meet any milestones. He can lie on his back and sit on our laps. He will have his own way as a baby, his own set of “baby days.”
The day I gave my speech to the girls’ school in Baltimore in honor of MLK I also learned a line dance. Ronan was still gestating away (and how I wish I could put him back there, or “fix” him somehow, even though I know that’s impossible and that it goes against everything I’ve written here) and I was out on a sweaty dance floor trying to figure out the steps to what K told me was “a Baltimore thing.” I was woefully inadequate as a prego dancer, heavy and flat-footed, and I was concerned that I was not having the “right” cultural experience because I couldn’t keep up. I watched K’s feet intently (I still didn’t get it), and then I began to watch her face. I met K when we were both Fulbright scholars in South Korea, and as I watched how fully engaged she was in what she was doing, how much fun she was having, I remembered how much I’d loved going to clubs with her in Seoul. She looked free. So finally I just gave up and turned when the others turned and threw my hand up in the air a few seconds after the others did. Freedom. No pursuit of perfection. Just a dance. Just a day.
I would change the speech I gave to those girls a year ago; I think MLK wanted people to be free, of course, but not so that they could be transformed in the way our society has come to understand change, not so they could strive to be more than who or what they were, but so they could just be. He didn’t want their lives to be so terrible that the only consolation was the idea of a life beyond the one they experienced now, a sweet hereafter that could be imagined but never fully known.
Ronan sees no other baby waiting in the wings. Right now, today, at this moment, he is dressed as Superman and playing with his magic rabbit from J. There is no pursuit. There is only, simply, happiness.