Six years later, Sylvia has never stopped loving her own reflection. She often goes to our room to study herself in the full-length mirror there.
“Clayton and Dee Dee think I’m vain when I look in the mirror,” she explained to me seriously a few weeks ago. “But I’m not. I’m just excited.”
Her words elated me. Because isn’t this what we all want for our daughters? For them to look in the mirror and feel good— excited, even— about what they see? That person she sees in the mirror? Sylvia’s in there! How cool is that?
Clayton’s sense of self-worth is much more complicated.
“I don’t want to be just nine-years-old,” he told me last Friday. “I want to be amazing.”
Clayton is writing a book. At six thousand words and counting, it’s a real, book-length book, easily as long as any Magic Tree House or Junie B. Jones. Typing a six-thousand word story, hunting and pecking each letter at a time— even that much is an accomplishment. But Clayton wants no qualifiers. He doesn’t want his book to be “pretty good for a nine-year-old.” He wants it to be J.K. Rowling amazing, Rick Riordan amazing.
Clayton dreams of publishing. He wants the five star icons by his title on amazon, “National Bestseller” on the front cover, “Based on the novel by Clayton Witsell” on the big screen. Every day he asks me, “Do you think I’ll really publish my book?”
With my own e-stack of rejection letters mounting, it is not an easy question.
“You can always self-publish,” I hedge. I tell him about The Martian and Still Alice, both best-sellers that were originally self-published.
He nods, not entirely convinced. Like me, he wants the validation of traditional publishing.
“I think I’ll still try to send it to real publishers first,” he says. “Do you think there’s a chance someone will publish it?”
Last weekend, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in nine years. In the interim, she’s earned her Ph.D., gotten a coveted professorship in Australia, completed “a couple” of Half Ironman triathlons, and become a competitive tennis player. And what have I done, I wondered? No Ph.D., no publishing credits, certainly no Half Ironmans or tennis tournaments. Instead, I have three kids and an elliptical machine in the basement, where I squeeze in workouts before leaving the house for a job that offers minimal pay and only minutely more status.
I don’t want to be just forty-three years old, I can almost hear myself thinking. I want to be amazing!
Here, Clayton is the mirror I can hold up to myself. Because what was the first thing I thought when he said those words? Clayton, you are amazing! Of course I think it’s pretty awesome that he’s writing his first book at the age of nine (and, in my biased opinion, a pretty wonderful book at that), but that’s not why he’s amazing. Book or no book, published or not, he’d still be amazing.
At the bar where my friend and I are having a drink, the bartender searches for our tab. She can’t find my friend’s name in the computer, neither first nor last.
“Here it is!” she says finally. “It was under Doctor.” She arches her eyebrows playfully. “Aren’t you fancy?”
We all laugh good-naturedly, because my friend is anything but pretentious. But still I find myself wondering what it must be like to go through life like that, when even the person who rings up your tab knows something of your accomplishments.
It reminds me of an experience I had in graduate school, when, as a student volunteer, I had the opportunity to go to lunch with a visiting poet. I went through the meal in a state of nervous awe, determined not to say much lest I say something stupid, until finally it was over and we sat back, our empty dishes spread before us. That moment is still vivid in my mind, because just then the acclaimed poet reached into her empty water glass, snaking her fingers among the ice-cubes to reach the wedge of lemon at the bottom. It was exactly the kind of uncouth gesture I would have made had I not been on my best behavior for the poet, and it has stayed with me as a lesson on humanity: that even the most amazing people are human, are ordinary.
When it comes to my own life, though, I have been much more hesitant to accept that the inverse can also be true: that the ordinary can be amazing. Catching up with my friend, I worry that by her international, high-academia standards, my own life must seem boringly conventional. But when I admit this, she shakes her head emphatically. She tells me that, without children, she is constantly striving to find ways to truly make a difference in the lives of others. To her, the fact that I have children who bare their hearts to me is amazing.
Recently Clayton seems to have tempered his ambitions a little. He now says things like, “Do you think I can be as good as J.K. Rowling when I grow up?” Or, “Even books that not many people know about can be good, right?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I say, to both of us.
Meanwhile I have found some of Sylvia’s school writing crumpled in her backpack:
It is hard not to smile at her unabashed self-love, unfiltered by any pretense of modesty. But, as in so many of the things my children say or do, I think there might be a lesson for me in all of this. For if his little sister teaches me about unconditional self-love, the question Clayton has raised is quite a bit more complicated: How do we strive to reach our dreams without our self-worth becoming impossibly tangled up with our successes... or the lack of them?
I think, for me, the answer is in both of my children. From Clayton, that the pursuit of our dreams is vitalizing and worthwhile, regardless of the outcome. From Sylvia, that it’s okay to love yourself for exactly who you are.