I was voted 'Most Likely to Succeed' in high school. Here we are, me and Jeremy Silver, photographed unflatteringly and with the flag a suggestion success might somehow relate to patriotism.
By the ten-year reunion, it was clear to both of us that elected office was not our planned path to success. At the time, I was transitioning out of job and relationship, and could tell people what I did -- Vice President of Planning & Analysis at a dotcom startup -- with conviction in its trappings of success but not its fact. The dotcom was bleeding money and I was giving up my worthless stock options for... what?
The next ten years were the what? and it is a question I still am asking. Though I have had fancy job titles and acceptable salaries since 2001, I have not had a job which fulfilled me to the toes, wrapping me up in its pinstriped cloak and whisking me away to the twirling heights of legitimacy. Much to the contrary, I have stormed quietly away from salaried work, preferring over the past few years to freelance in a comfortable relationship with a former employer, Aol, writing long and passionately frugal or vividly contrarian posts on blogs I helped launch into being. Success? Yes, I had successes, but not so much success. I'd get into a national newspaper or appear on TV; I'd get a million pageviews for a post and think smugly, they emailed my post to the president! -- I'd get an agent or a publication in a magazine; then I'd lose an agent, but gain a prestigious award.
I would not finish the book. I would not sow the whole garden; I would not find my zen organization in the house; I would not harvest every grape, I would not complete every thought, I would not serve every meal on time, I would stop going to church (too hard!); I would pull my oldest out of school (impossible); I would promise things and not deliver them, always (who can?). I would start things until the unfinished piled up in all textures and realities, stacks of papers and baskets of knitting and folders of .txt files and buckets of seeds.
Aol would buy the Huffington Post. Do not care about this; know only that it was a rout, a hectoring, a bloodletting. Hundreds were fired immediately; many more were told in cheery emails, "this note confirms the end of your engagement for content services." I did not get this note for many months -- until my 20th-year reunion was almost upon me, until the blog property I founded, itself, was being shut down. I was sent this note by someone I helped hire. It has happy primary-colored Aol buddies in the signature line.
When you are let free, do you cheer or weep? I knew that I should cheer but instead wept, falling into tears at a moment's provocation. Success? I had nothing. Not even, to be frank, money. I was borrowing against that which was promised elsewhere. I was baring all my threads and reddening all my eyes.
I went to the reunion laid bare. My once-and-former classmates read my posts on Facebook; they, if they are interested, know exactly who I am in a way that one carefully hides in high school. Famous, as it were, for my raw writing, I have not detailed my successes so well as I have unpacked my failures, turning them (if I could) into sad songs of nighttime, of winter days and hot summer laments. I did not expect commiseration, but indeed my classmates are lawyers and nurses and Vice Presidents. They are on boards of things; they have homes that are all the way done and achingly perfect; they have children who bring home medals and As, not IEP notices and wet clothes.
"You fascinate me," said one. "I love you!" said another, and "I love you!" said another. I said that I am working on three books and realized that it was true. That this thrilled me, wrapped me up and twirled me around, that this was (indeed) everything of which I had ever dreamt.
I stayed up until 6:30 the next morning talking about children and houses and how to write what you need, and while I may have erred a bit on the letting go, once my hangover was over I had a warm, endless feeling of love in my chest and a renewed commitment to finish something, this book, and that one, and unbelievably, a place once more to earn money.
Not success in any way I would have recognized at 17, certainly; no flag-draping, no office with cool blue carpets and framed documents on the wall, no retirement fund, even. But: these last twenty years. This 20th reunion. It was a success.