Did you read the first one? Here, I’ll give you a link.
Now you’re ready to move on.
My friend and I were talking recently, and she lamented that she wasn’t doing more with her life.
“I always swore I wouldn’t let myself be like my mother,” she said. “But here I am. Just a housewife.”
This friend has always spoken lovingly of her mother, and with great admiration. They’re very close. “So what does that mean?” I asked her. “Being just a housewife?”
This women has two children still living at home. She does all of the cooking, cleaning and laundry, and she attends every event in which her children participate. She also volunteers in the classroom of a low-income school.
And – incidentally – what does that make me? I guess I’m just a housewife, too. I write, of course, and I teach some fitness classes. Oh, and I don’t clean. I only do some of the cooking. I am pretty good at laundry. You could say I’m just (barely) a housewife.
So my friend has modeled herself after the person she has loved most in this world, the person who made her who she is. But she is defining herself as a product of her mother’s limitations rather than her successes. And of course, when you choose to be just a housewife, you are limited, there’s no question. You cannot be Secretary of State, and you can’t become vice president of Nabisco or own a trendy restaurant that serves tapas.
You can’t be GREAT, defined as remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness, or markedly superior in character or quality. I mean, you can be, but who the fuck cares if you’re a great housewife?
Ah, but here’s the catch. When you define yourself by what you do rather than who you are, then your limitations can be stifling and depressing. My friend has made an imaginary box in which to store all of her accomplishments, and in the box she sees only a few ancient years of a promising career cut short by the decision to have a family.
But why are her children not in the box? Why hasn’t she stored her friendships in the box? The lasagnas and soups made for ailing neighbors, the poor child she taught to read?
When I was a girl, my parents bought a place in the country where we spent weekends and summers. Across the road lived Mr. Core, an old farmer who looked after our property when we weren’t there. Mr. Core had been a rodeo star in his youth, riding bucking broncos on the national circuit until one of them landed on top of him and broke his back. No one thought he’d survive, much less walk again, but he did, and spent his life growing vegetables and raising farm animals. His wife had left him long ago for the city, and so he lived with his mother, Aunt Emma, who once killed a water moccasin when she was 82 years old.
We loved to visit Mr. Core and pick strawberries, and he’d often come over for barbecued steak and beer. Mr. Core didn’t care much about money. He woke up each morning with determination anew to play the hand he was dealt. He had a tractor, but he preferred to work the fields with his old-fashioned plow and Belgian work horse. By each day’s end, he was covered in dirt and soaked, and more a part of this earth than any modern environmentalist could possibly be. He gardened organically before Kashi cereal even existed – no pesticides, he said, because he planted enough for him and the bugs.
When he met Hot Firefighter Husband, he pulled me aside and said, “Well, I think he’s all right. You know he’s a little bit shorter than you, but that’s just fine.” Later he told Husband that if we moved near him, he’d teach us how to raise capons.
Mr. Core loved my family fiercely and loyally, and we loved him. When he died, he left his land to his son. It was all he had. And now his son lives in much the same way.
I think of Mr. Core as a GREAT man. He lived every day like the world needed him to get something done, and I adored that about him. He never had nearly as much wealth or as many possessions as my father, or even me, but he didn’t let that define him. His greatness came from his ability to coax into bloom the Louisiana strawberries so sweet we ate them straight from the plant, and the way his horse nuzzled his pockets for a piece of apple.
So my father quit work in the prime of his career, and since then he has spent his time, his money and his energy on us. His children. He thinks about us all of the time, and he loves us so much he frequently cries because he misses us. My mother has had two paying jobs in her life – the first as a secretary for the Humble Oil Company, and the second working for BellSouth. She hasn’t been employed since the year before I was born. Right now she’s on a trip to London with her eldest granddaughter, who turns 13 next month.
They were – and are – GREAT people. GREAT parents, GREAT friends, GREAT contributors to their community. But no greater than Mr. Core, who I don’t think had ever even been on a plane, and no less great than, say, Ernest Hemingway, whose literary legend came at the expense of his family relations.
Back to my friend: I think she’s a great woman. But her own claim to greatness is limited by her failure to properly define it. And so is mine, I’m afraid.
“You are a great woman,” Hot Firefighter Husband recently told me. Can that be true? Husband has this unique ability to recognize and truly believe that ordinary people can live extraordinary lives. It’s one of the things I love most about him.
The documentary I mentioned in The GREATNESS, Part I, is Tom Shadyac’s film I Am. Shadyac, a successful movie producer, made this mind-altering movie after suffering a bike accident in which he was critically injured. He based it on two questions: What’s wrong with the world, and what can we do to fix it? He asks those two questions of dozens of life experts, including Desmond Tutu, Lynne McTaggert, and people who study the works of Rumi, Ghandi, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“The sea is really only drops of water that have come together,” Tutu says in the film. Am I just a drop of water? I am. But I’m beginning to think that’s okay.
I have always wanted to be a GREAT writer, a GREAT journalist. I want to be recognized and lauded. But must I do that at the expense of the other tasks I am obligated to accomplish? Am I willing to follow a narrow, hazardous path toward mythical greatness, and in the process forgo the certainty of being great at something else with more potential to better this world?
I’m not a Bible-thumping gal, but I do love me some Corinthians, especially this, found in 1 Corinthians 13:13: Three things will last forever–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.
I vow to be GREAT. But my greatness must be measured by the love I put forth for those who depend on me and this earth which sustains me. Without that love, after all, any GREATNESS falls short of its potential.
Even with an abundance of love, I’m still a drop of water. But sometimes, in a drought, a drop can be enough.