When I am feeling inclined to make myself depressed, nothing does the trick like reading my University of Chicago alumni magazine with its class news full of literary prizes, distinguished new books, prestigious academic appointments, and groundbreaking discoveries. Once I wrote an entry for my wife’s amusement: “Richard A. Stewart, AM ’78, continues to pursue a mediocre career as a failed writer and low-level bureaucrat with the Chicago Public Library, at a salary not quite adequate to support his family, since he is unemployable anywhere else. Richard, his wife (who could have done better and wishes she had known what she was getting into), their four unfortunate children, two cats fond of vomiting hairballs on the family’s few decent pieces of furniture, and several thousand cockroaches live in a tiny condominium in a decaying neighborhood.” We laughed at the parody of our situation. But later, after the rest of the family had gone to bed, the contrast seemed less amusing.
Growing up, I had always assumed I would find work I liked, be successful at it, and make lots of money. Now, at forty-three, I look at my brilliant contemporaries and wonder how I ever could have imagined myself one of them. It’s not that I have washed out completely. In fact, at times I find myself ashamed of my ingratitude for what I do have: a close and loving family, a satisfying job, a safe and comfortable place to live. It’s more than many people have. Still, it’s less than I once thought myself capable of achieving. And more important — as long as we have to worry about every month’s bills; as long as my wife, who has more than a full-time job running our household and caring for four young children, must of necessity add an outside job to her responsibilities — it’s less than my family needs.
I have come to see clearly the failures of will and self-discipline by which I have held myself back. But lately, I find myself thinking that perhaps I could learn to make money, that it is not just a web of obligations designed to trap me and those I love. I have begun to take a fresher look at the world of work, to widen my assumptions about what I might try. And I have begun to lay the groundwork for some changes.
In the meantime, I take counsel each day at my dresser, where I have propped a small strip of paper imprinted with the words, “Your problem lies not in a lack of ability but in a lack of ambition.” All this agonizing about where I went wrong, and all I had to do was read my fortune cookie.
R. A. Stewart
Father Peter asked me if I wanted to take a bus ride to the south Bronx, where our youth group was working in a soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity. He hinted that Mother Teresa might be there. I said sure.
We pulled up to the convent and there she was, standing on the sidewalk, looking very little and very ordinary.
“When are you going to become a nun?” she asked me after Father Peter introduced us. I just smiled and shrugged my shoulders. What do you say to Mother Teresa? No, I don’t want to be good like you?
Then she looked up into the gray, misting sky and sighed, “What a beautiful day!” And I thought, Here I am in the south Bronx, where people are hurting and hungry, talking to Mother Teresa about the weather.
But when I looked at her looking at the sky, I found I agreed with her.
Fairview, New Jersey
I once ran the largest emergency food program in my city. Every November and December all the TV stations, newspapers, and radio stations would call me for their holiday stories. The rest of the year, my staff and I thought up ways to get publicity because publicity means donations. We developed hunger surveys and released the results; we issued responses to the Reagan administration’s attempt to count ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches; we tried to get our soup kitchen cookbook reviewed on the food pages of the daily newspaper.
As a result, I became modestly famous. I no longer had to produce identification at the bank because the teller had seen me on TV. The store clerk who took my film to be processed recognized my name and was visibly excited to meet me. And though I was an anonymous member of an Adult Children of Alcoholics Al-Anon group, after every TV interview I would notice people in my group staring at me in awe. It was heady.
But fame had its price: I was always on. I came into contact with potential donors at almost every social event, and I was always ready to give my pitch. I was also primed to deliver sound bites when the radio station called me at 6:00 A.M. to get a quote for rush hour.
I was effective and successful — and a nervous wreck. My husband also worked in a visible position, and we slept through most weekends and ate out every night because neither of us had the energy to plan a meal.
Finally, my husband returned to school to change careers, and we left the state. That was six years ago. Now I run a small social service program in a larger city, and hardly anyone knows me. I come home at a reasonable hour and cook dinner and practice yoga and sometimes plan parties. Occasionally I wish I were someone important, but mostly I’ve come to accept that the price of fame is higher than I can afford to pay.
My father left his native Lithuania in 1923 when he was seventeen. He had lived through the pogroms and seen his homeland invaded repeatedly by other countries. These new regimes always called on the army for support, and, as he saw it, the soldiers gave their lives for no purpose. Dodging the draft, he left his country and came to Canada by boat, following two older brothers who’d apprenticed themselves to an upholsterer.
I longed to hear the stories of my father’s childhood, but he was invariably tight-lipped and bitter about those days. “What do you want me to tell you?” He’d scowl at me impatiently. “About the dirt streets? About being too poor to have shoes? About pulling the wagon long miles to market?” Yes, please, I yearned to say, but I honored his need to forget. To questions about his parents — a tinker and a dressmaker — he was equally curt. “They were good people. Hard-working people. They had no time for anything but work. We had to eat.”
Of course, he too worked hard, and built his business, and saved. At one point, his furniture company employed four hundred people. But he used his fortune to bring more and more of his extended family to Canada, eventually sparing his nieces and nephews the horrors of Hitler. He was such a well-known soft touch that his secretary used to phone my mother, concerned because so many people came to him with their tales of woe and he’d always write them a check. He never recorded them and was seldom repaid.
He was capable of being ruthless at times, but he never forgot what it was to be poor.
Soon after my high school English teachers started noticing my poetry, I began to believe that fame and fortune were mere moments away. I would lull myself to sleep at night with the thought that my first novel would immediately attract the attention of the Nobel prize committee. I began to model an acceptance speech after Faulkner’s.
I am now convinced that without the promise of fame and fortune, I could not have survived adolescence. But, of course, the reality gets harder every year. My senior-class English teacher gave me five years to finish my first novel. What a conservative estimate, I thought then. But those five years came and went, and I remained unpublished.
Now I’m staring down the barrel of my twenty-fifth high school reunion, and I doubt that I’ll ever be famous or rich. But occasionally I’m still lulled to sleep by that Nobel prize dream. I wonder why. Is it the adolescent in me who never matured, or is it the child in me who refused to die?
Holding a child while she throws up; cleaning up after her with a soapy washcloth as she, feeling much better now, takes a hot bath and sings “Hush, Little Baby” at the top of her lungs; planning with her what she should do — use a bowl I’ve given her, call for me — if she needs to throw up again at night; helping her write a letter to her grandmother with all the exquisite details of being sick; tucking her in, kissing her hair.
Fame? Fortune? I am, my children insist, “the best mommy in the whole wide world.” They will never leave, they tell me often. They’ll tie a string around me, and I’ll never get away. They breathe their little mouths into my face; they fall asleep as I sing to them, their fists clutching my hair.
I went to New York City when I was eighteen to become an actress. I imagined success would fall into my lap if only I put myself in the right place. So I waited around Manhattan a few months, and then one day, while I was looking at a window display downtown, a man introduced himself, saying he worked for an advertising agency.
He arranged my first interview. The office had a bar, a mahogany desk, black leather swivel chairs, and, in the corner, a couch. The man behind the desk put his hands behind his head when he talked to me and leaned back in his chair.
“Modeling,” he called it.
“I don’t approve of using women’s bodies to sell products,” I said.
“Trips to the Caribbean,” he countered.
“I had hoped to do something along the lines of Judith Malina and the Living Theatre.”
“A hundred thousand dollars a year,” he said.
I had been eating canned spaghetti for weeks. “I guess I’ll take the job,” I said. “When do I start?”
“Right now,” he said. He told me the next part of the deal and slid his eyes over to the couch.
I looked at the couch too and said, “This sounds like high-class prostitution to me.”
It was a political statement. I said the same thing about dating, marriage, and wage labor.
He missed the point. “It’s very high class,” he said, grinning and leaning back in his chair.
I wrote about this experience a few years ago in The Sun. I thought I could write about even embarrassing things, because there I was in Yachats, Oregon, alone in my kitchen. Who was ever going to read it?
But later, while I was at a Halloween party, dressed like Jackie Kennedy, I heard a woman ask, “Does anyone know Alison Clement?”
She was an older woman with glasses and gray hair. I introduced myself. She said someone had sent her a copy of The Sun after noticing that one of the writers was from Yachats. There are only about six hundred people in Yachats.
It turned out she owned a bed and breakfast on the beach. She needed a person to clean the rooms.
I met someone on the street in Manhattan one day and thought it would lead me to a life of fame and fortune, but what actually came of it, fifteen years later, was a job as a maid.