"Well ...at least you are not in jail."
That's the way my mother summed up my life many years ago.
The unspoken part was: You're a failure. These words have continued to rattle around in my head through the years.
I'm not rich or famous. My mother didn't really care about those things. She did care that I didn't become a doctor or a lawyer. I didn't marry one either. I didn't have children (at least not of my body and my mother didn’t understand any other kind.) I knew those things were my mother's dreams. I don't think it ever crossed her mind that they might not be mine.
But, even so, is that the best that she could have said about my life?
When I was a kid, I read almost all the books in the children's section of the library. It was across the street from the University of Southern California. It was a good sized library.
I'll be 70 at the end of this year. I've supported myself since I was 19 years old. At the time that I left home, leaving home was a life decision. And except for three months when I was saving up for a car, after my VW bug lost its transmission, I never went back.
At one point I created a random goal for myself to make $100,000 a year, and I did get a contract for that amount. Due to me breaking one of the cardinal rules of my life "never work for crazy people," I never actually got the money but I had the amount as my salary on paper.
Contract aside, I've never had a huge amount of money. But I've shared what I had by giving to charity, and where I couldn't give money, I've given my time.
I've organized others to take food, and have taken food myself, to a women's homeless shelter for the last ten years. I'm currently running a project to make quilts for all the beds in that same shelter.
A group I am in wanted to donate 150 blankets to the shelter and I was the one they contacted to get it done. That happens a lot when someone wants to donate something, they contact me.
And this will be the third year I'll be organizing and helping to serve brunch for 300 at a homeless shelter for men on December 25th.
I've driven across the US by myself three times. I've gone to England, Scotland and the Continent. I've lived in Texas, California, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. I owned two houses in Colorado, and one (the dream house that got away) in Virginia.
Despite my longstanding hatred of exercise, I've participated in three 5K races in the last few years. I staggered in hot, sweaty and dead last in one of them, but I finished. And I've volunteered my time to the club that runs the races enough that folks at races know who I am.
I've had two articles published online, and three in print. Most were not anything amazing, but one was. It was published on a huge Jewish website this past year and it was one of the high points of my life.
I was part of an international medieval reenactment group (the Society for Creative Anachronism - the SCA) for 17 years. I was an officer at the city, state and multi-state level and I received their highest award for organization and service. Another high point for me.
And my “kids” are folks I helped get their start in the SCA. Like lots of children, they outdid they parent by leaps and bounds. I couldn’t be more proud of them if they were the children of my body.
I taught myself about relational databases, HTML coding, CSS and WordPress. I am a power user of Excel, and I taught myself QuickBooks. I also taught myself to read business Spanish. I created a functioning 24/7 call center in an empty room. I built a couple of computers just to see if I could.
I had my fair share of lovers; and even better had, and have, some smart, talented, truly amazing people that I am proud to say were and are my friends. I had a decade long relationship with a man who is absolutely one of the nicest people I have ever met. I am happy to say he still likes me, in spite of the fact that the reason we are not together anymore is all on me. For that matter, I am proud to say I am friends with his current wife.
I lived through all the alcohol and noxious chemicals I put into my body in my 20s and 30s, and through a combination of not being genetically predisposed to addiction and the ability to "just say no" to some things, I walked away from all of it when I decided to do so. (Well... except for white wine and margaritas now and again.)
I put myself through college. I had some good years while there when I was as skinny as I ever was in my life. I looked pretty darned good. I was also a great stage manager, and got to work on several major college productions. I was accepted into graduate school, though I didn't end up going.
I also had a few terribly bad years right after college when I somehow lived through the serious effort I made to end my life. I still don't know how, but it felt as if I walked through a door and once I got to the other side, I’m glad to say that killing myself stopped looking easier than living.
I studied with three rabbis before I found one that I clicked with, and it was five years from the time it crossed my mind to look into Judaism to the time I went to the mikvah to convert. But I stuck with it. I'm proud I'm still learning Torah.
A rabbi I know said everyone is someone’s teacher. Strangely enough, there are a number of Jews of my acquaintance who use me as their authority on matters Jewish. I always think that’s weird, but I do my best for them. I created a Haggadah for some friends whose only Jewish activity is hosting a Passover Seder.
I've spent a good part of my life dealing with things my mother said to me. Somehow no matter how many times someone else has said something that contradicted something she said, what she said is still there and overrides everything else. My relationship with her was the most horrid, the most intense and the most important of my life.
After all these years, I realize that when my mother told me I was a failure, what she meant was that she was a failure. She hadn't been able to make me do what she thought was important: things she hadn't been able to do herself.
When she said those words to me all those years ago, I was stunned. I couldn't respond. But if my mother said that to me now, I could reply. I’d say:
You're wrong. I'm not a failure.
And neither are you.