I have returned to that Patti Smith essay on failure many times over the last few weeks. I already shared some initial thoughts on it as required reading for just being a human, but I think what’s prompted such habitual revisiting is the following paragraph, just after she’s described an incident where she was unable to sing the lyrics of a song while on stage at a Nobel Prize ceremony:
“When I arose the next morning, it was snowing. In the breakfast room, I was greeted by many of the Nobel scientists. They showed appreciation for my very public struggle. They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles. Words of kindness continued through the day, and in the end I had to come to terms with the truer nature of my duty. Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them. The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?
When my husband, Fred, died, my father told me that time does not heal all wounds but gives us the tools to endure them. I have found this to be true in the greatest and smallest of matters.”
Such sagacity here, and I’ll bare myself and admit that I’ve needed it a few times over the past few weeks, in matters both professional and personal. We have been eking our way through a period of transition with our business that has required some shoring up, some tough decision-making, some soul-searching. It has pushed me to think about what I want for myself professionally in light of my new role as a mother. It has been, above all, uncomfortably new, and I am puzzling over the contours of my emotions. I’ll have to put my thoughts into words at some point soon because Lord knows I write to know what I think, but suffice to say that I have surprised myself. But these business decisions, compounded with (you may have noticed) a deeper commitment to this blog and the emotional vicissitudes of becoming (being?) a parent, have repeatedly drawn me back to Patti’s essay here for a few reasons, the principal one being what I’ll call, in shorthand, “the boogeyman.”
As children, we’re all afraid of the monster under the bed, the boogeyman in the closet, or–in my case–Maleficent peering into our bedroom windows. (I had two floodlights poking down into one of the windows of my childhood bedroom, and, horrified of the villain in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, was convinced that these floodlights turned into Maleficent’s horns at night.) I’m convinced that these fictions of fear exist, for many of us, as adults, just in more abstracted, less corporeal form. Or, at least, a more ghostlike boogeyman still exists for me.
Let me explain.
I am out with mini alone at Target three weeks after she’s born. It’s one of the first solo mother-daughter excursions I’ve taken. Despite my best attempts to model myself on my mother (remember: she at some point went grocery shopping with five children under the age of twelve…by herself…multiple times a week), I am anxious. I rush around the car, fiddling nervously with the new baby gear (strollers, adapters, carseats, OH MY — why o why did I not pay more attention to Mr. Magpie’s tutorial?), worrying someone will pull into the spot adjacent to my own, rushing through the aisles for fear that mini will wake up–and then it occurs to me: what am I afraid of? I have to pause, take a deep breath, and realize I am letting the boogeyman–some vague, partially-formed anxiety–take over.
I am at a meeting and notice that time has gotten away from us. I start wondering whether I’ll be able to make it home in time to nurse mini. I’m probably thirty minutes out from when she’ll be getting hungry. Should I call this meeting quits? Will the nanny/Mr. Magpie know to use the pumped milk in the fridge first if I don’t make it home in time? Will I then need to pump? Will she go longer before her next feed since she’ll only be taking formula? Suddenly, I’m jolted from my adult conversation into some alternative universe of breastfeeding mental math and mania. I again need to stop myself, take a deep breath, and realize the boogeyman has been breathing down my neck. Because, really, why the anxiety? What’s going to happen? Mini has some of our fancy Dutch formula (which we love — strongly recommend this organic formula, which is gentle on mini’s stomach and devoid of a lot of the artificial items you find in many American formulas, though we’ve used those, too), and I get to go an extra few hours without needing to nurse, and life goes on just as fine as it was the day before.
I am pitching our business (details redacted for obvious reasons), and, despite having been over the language thousands of times, in hundreds of contexts, I am flustered. Explanations come out in chokingly. I stumble over some of my slick phrasings, my learned tech glossary–“micro-interactions,” “digital hand-raising,” “ambient technology,” “millennial-friendliness”–they all feel as though they’ve been coated with some sort of glue in my mouth, and I’m muddling my way through. I feel my face redden, my stomach lurch, and begin to mentally organize the errors I’m making into a tick-list of things never to say again. Afterwards, over coffee with Mr. Magpie, I realize that despite the horrible stomach churning of the last half hour, the world is actually not over–what have I been afraid of? What is the worst possible outcome? I stare the boogeyman in the face. Maybe a lost sale or a declined investment. OK, what next? Life goes on, business goes on, and I’ve just got to get back in the saddle.
I am cautiously tiptoe-ing into making Magpie more of a long-term professional commitment, and I begin to talk about it with friends. Whereas I used to brush it off, blush when Mr. Magpie mentioned this little bloglet, and hurry to say: “Oh, but it’s just a hobby…”, I now nervously, anxiously bring it up in conversation, fingering the silverware and fiddling with my necklace as I do so. It feels alien–or, maybe, the better word is presumptuous–to consider myself a blogger. What do I have to say, I wonder? Who am I to comment on fashion or parenting or any of the other stuff I muse over here on this blog? And then I recognize the boogeyman, his outline lurking in my thoughts. I self-correct. “What’s the worst that happens? No one reads it? I offend someone by accident? Someone writes something mean in a comment?” So.what?
I float back to Patti, whose public failure reassured so many (as it has for me) and whose essay prompts an interrogation of the duties that we have set out for ourselves, or that fall upon us, or that we otherwise assume. She writes: “Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them.” I absolutely love the way this line of thinking metamorphoses a moment of self defeat into one of hope, and even of self-less-ness. It flies in the face of the boogeyman telling us to be ashamed of our failures or anxious about the “what ifs” and refocuses that energy on the broader task at hand: to interact meaningfully with those around us. I now aspirationally set this goal in the many arenas in which I find myself trying and failing today and every day–as an entrepreneur building a new solution for the modern workforce, as a mother caring for her child, as a blogger (there, I said it!) writing for an audience–as a wife, sister, friend, daughter, colleague. I choose to occupy these roles and, in the very best version of my self, I aspire to do so for the “entertainment and transformation” of others–or, as I might frame it, a touch more humbly, for the “love of and connection to” others. And, if failure does find me, Patti reminds me that “time does not heal all wounds but gives us the tools to endure them.” So take that, Boogeyman.
Re-reading these paragraphs to myself, they feel flabby, ill-formed. I’m lilting around a topic that’s not quite holding together, but these knotty issues of identity, of failure, of interaction with others, are so throbbingly front-of-mind for me that maybe I’m unable to see the forest for the trees. Candidly, I thought about abandoning this post, of shelving it and revisiting it when I can mold it into something more artfully drawn, but then, in the spirit of this post’s fearless ethos, thought I’d share them mid-stride, see what sticks.
In the sunnier category of things that do NOT frighten me, however: summer whites. (Well, they frighten me a bit in the sense that they are oh-so-devilish to keep clean.) But I can’t stop buying all white everything. (I especially loved a recent outfit involving white distressed denim, a white v-neck tee, and a cream sweater.) One new find: this Self-Portrait stunner in white eyelet, on sale for $257!!! (Shown in the intro snap above.)
On the more affordable end of the spectrum, I MUST OWN THIS LWD FROM ANN TAYLOR NOW ($129).