The image of the best moments as beads or golden bubbles or pearls that stand out and float above the more ordinary times has been circling around my head for a while. I think of those as semi-detached fractals of time and space and people when everything that seems like love and light coalesces.
And then I think of those moments as beads along some rosary, remembrances to click through like prayers when the good fight gets tougher.
The phrase “more string than pearls,” always seems beautifully pregnant with disappointment, sort of stoically accepting, anticipating, the hard and gray times. The string, the mundane, is boring, but must be lived through, to get to the successful pearls of glory.
At the end of my summer on the farm, I got into a great conversation with some of our CSA members. They work at a different local prep school than I, and, as they picked up their vegetable share one week, we talked about the things we hope for with our students. We—the not-quite-hippies with the vested interest in local organic vegetables—all seemed to be similarly bound to work on waking our various students up to the possibilities and curiosities of the world. We all want to focus on helping them learn to ask questions, not to provide answers.
In a world that seems increasingly, terrifyingly, bent on spoon feeding identity and opinions to the masses, finding someone who is on the same page with struggling to put idealism into action is like meeting another pilgrim on a dark stretch of trail.
It was a lovely moment, a pearl, the kind where I find myself putting my hand on my heart a lot, grinning, and saying “Oh, me too!” It is a relief at not, in this, being alone.
Of course, we’re never alone in these struggles, but some days it certainly feels like we are each the sole outpost of sanity in a society that seems far too focused on defining people by their inadequacies, and offering consumer goods and services as the surest means to alleviate those failings, the surest path to success.
These same lovely people, emerging friends, sent me a copy of the writer John Elder’s Last Lecture before he retired from Middlebury College. The title of the talk is “Freeing Education from Success.” I love it—Thoreau and Mary Oliver and Darwin and the Japanese poet Basho all tied together in a conversation about how to be in the world. Elder talks—he seems too joyous for the sterner verb “lectures”—about the dangerous thread of our current culture that defines success for each of us, rather than us each drawing our own understanding of a full and good life out of ourselves. And the role that education plays in all of this misunderstanding of what success might look like. How we need to be wistful, because “if we long for something, it draws us into the world.”
Success, as described by Elder, is an active amalgam of wonder and compassion, curiosity and engagement, community and humility, wistfulness and awareness. Success begins to sound not like a pinnacle to be gained, not a prize at the end of the road at all, but like a well-woven way of being in the world. Success is how and where we are, not as much how and where we will be, or would like to be.
The pearls—the best times—will always stand out. No life can be so rich that the special moments do not pop with shimmering intensity. I painted a bunch of my best moments as beads on a string a while back. What I didn’t do, though, was pay attention to the string. That, now, I think is where attention is deserved. The string is the mundane, the daily. It is the how we are in the world, truly and frequently. Our success is in those ordinary times as much as our brilliant joys are in the memorable contained moments.
To have a well-lived and happy-though-not-perfect string connecting all the golden bubbles and pearls of our best times—I can’t think of a more successful way to be in the world. Living like this won’t ward of the darkness and the challenges—trouble, frustration, heart-break and fear will still and always come your way—but it does help to change the scale of success you seek and focus on the moment you are living in, rather than the nebulous one you live for.
Personally, I want to make the world an ever better place while enjoying and celebrating all the good that is already here—from mountains and oceans to eggplants and our human capacity for love. It is a grand and lofty goal. Sometimes, that bar seems awfully high—I don’t know how to measure if I am succeeding towards that end or no, and so I take in of the general insecurity of our culture and assume that if I am not a blazing success with my name in lights, several award winning books, and a million dollars in my bank account, I must be a failure.
Most days, though, I can look around at the life I live and see that, by the measure of success I know in my bones, I am already there and here—enjoying and celebrating and improving my and the slightly larger world, little by little.
I think about this when I bake bread, ride my bike, eat vegetables from the farm, meet fellow educational idealists, talk to kids about books, or write. I’m lucky to not be in a phase of struggling to find work and meaning in my life—I’ve been there and imagine I will be again—and here will always be a thousand insecurities and frustrations in life (student loans, dog vomit, emotional turmoil, etc.), but, when I stop to notice, that even the mundane fibers making up the string between the glorious pearls are fairly wonderful, this is so much more joy to be had.
What is more successful than that?