Middle age is a tricky time to learn about being a good competitor, winning and losing with any kind of grace. As a child I was terrible at all sports and my parents consoled me saying they’d been terrible too. My mother believed competition was a capitalist tool, a way to make people fight against each other, a way to divide people. My dad was not nearly so ideological. He was ruthless at board games but pretty lackadaisical when it came to competing in the real world. It was common knowledge that the only one who won in a rat race were the rats.
I did win a spelling bee in sixth grade which got me a hand-made ribbon with Spelly Bee on it and a gift certificate for a free ice cream cone. It seemed fitting that the ribbon itself was a bit of an embarrassment. In college I was the editor of my student newspaper but I don’t remember anyone else wanting the job. Then I won an award for extra curricular activities but I took this as the head of student services throwing a little money my way because he knew I was broke.
After college I briefly considered going into journalism but there was a conviction and a clarity that other young journalists had that I didn’t think I could compete with. I had a hard time believing in anything, but especially myself. Instead, like my parents, I’ve never had much of a career. I’ve had jobs, first in bars and later in social services. Once in my early years in social services I got promoted, into a job I hated so much I ended up quitting, and that seemed fitting too.
I knew I was going to have to change when I joined a writing program in my forties, that part of what I needed to learn was to be in a room with a dozen people who all wanted the same thing. That in this space I had to learn to find community, not only anxiety. I had to accept that although we sat side by side, our hearts and secret desires flowing out onto a page, we had everything and nothing to do with each other. We were kindred spirits but this journey we were on was uniquely our own.
“I’ve had moments of pettiness, literally smallness, that have shamed me and moments of bravery that astonished me. I’ve felt exhilerated by recognition and flooded by disappointment. I’ve talked to hundreds of people and read to the one lone friend who showed up for an event. “
That has been a powerful and ongoing lesson for me. The courage to overcome my own fear, the courage to accept and celebrate the journey of others to do the same. It’s not easy. I’ve had moments of pettiness, literally smallness, that have shamed me and moments of bravery that astonished me. I’ve felt exhilerated by recognition and flooded by disappointment. I’ve talked to hundreds of people and read to the one lone friend who showed up for an event. And through it all I’ve realized that the only thing I had any control over was me. All I could do was show up, as ready as I could possibly be. All I could do was be the best version of myself I knew how, knowing that tomorrow, if I was lucky, I would learn and know better.
This is the gift I try and give myself everyday, and the prize I know only I can hand out.