It’s been another exciting month in Mama Writer Land. During these long winter nights in the upper midwest, the shadow of an old friend has appeared: Envy.
I’m sailing along just fine. I have my couple-three careers, my writing projects, and the kids, who seem to be staying out of trouble for the time being. Katja just got her acceptance letter from her first choice college, New York University. My husband, Ed, and I are enjoying each other’s company, thanks to our teenagers’ active social lives, and the Democrats are the majority party again.
Everything is cool, then wham, envy bursts forth like a blizzard.
The niggling feeling begins when I attend a yoga class at the center I helped open six years ago. I left it two years later to open my own space, with a vision of a nonprofit, community-based yoga school for all income levels. When I arrive for class, the yoga center is packed, the boutique filled with trendy togs. My former colleague just completed another level of certification, and now she’s teaching workshops and training other teachers. This colleague began yoga studies two years after I did, and this is what she’s accomplished already?
Envy rears her head and starts comparing: Look at all these people, she must be raking it in. Should I have stuck with a traditional business? Did I do the right thing venturing forth on my own? Am I less successful because my studio is small? Why am I so lazy? Why haven’t I gotten my intermediate certification yet?
Then I read a newspaper article about a young friend of ours, a lacrosse star who will be attending University of Pennsylvania next year. The article features a beautiful photo of the smiling young man, whom I’ve known since before he was born (I was his mom’s childbirth instructor) and describes his athletic and academic prowess. His family moved across the country, but for years I enjoyed a close friendship with his mom, who represents for me a road I chose not to take. She’s a college professor, tenured, from old money, with a lifestyle fit for Fine Living magazine: beautiful clothes, dinner parties with expensive wines and the intellectual elite, private schools, trips to Europe. While our kids were tiny, we grubbed around together at playgrounds with peanut butter sandwiches. But I stayed grubby, while she finished her dissertation, got a great job, and returned to her elegant ways.
Here’s envy again: Why didn’t I go for that Ph.D.? Why am I such a slob? Whom am I fooling with my supposed “simple living” and social activism? Why not embrace class differences and accept the privileges I have coming to me? Should I have pushed my kids to apply to Ivy League schools? Will they miss out on opportunities because I’m allowing them to be lazy, like me?
Then I get an email from a good friend from graduate school whose new novel has just been released by a major publisher. It’s getting great reviews; she’s embarking on a national book tour. I’m thrilled for her, but you know how it goes: Did I waste my graduate degree? Am I disappointing my mentors? Am I dissipating my energy by spreading myself so thin? Why don’t I have more books under my belt? Why don’t I just stick to poetry, the thing I’m supposed to be good at? Why am I so lazy?
Is there no end to the itch of envy?
The old story, the narrative ingrained in our cells, teaches us that competition encourages growth. The old story pits one against another to establish hierarchy, domination, winners and losers, in an environment of scarcity. The old story says do what brings you profit and acclaim. The old story relies on the power of envy, a close cousin of shame, to spur ambition, then greed, and finally ruthlessness. But what is the new story?
One of the primary disciplines of yoga is santosha, Sanskrit for contentment. Santosha is independent of outer circumstances, but rather an inner practice. Last night, before bedtime, I take some tangled skeins of hand-dyed wool, and roll them up into balls. The rhythmic task soothes my mind, the lanolin moisturizes my winter-dry hands, and the soft, round balls of yarn are sensually pleasing. Santosha, contentment with what we have, acceptance of the hodge-podge of my odd, tangled life of writing, teaching, parenting, partnering, practicing yoga, singing, community organizing, knitting, and more.
Not that I can kick envy out of my mind forever, but I have to remind myself of what I chose, and why. So I don’t have 400 yoga students a week, but I have 100 lovely and wonderful students whom I treasure. My children are not featured in the local paper, but they are well-rounded, kind, funny, smart, cool, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. I don’t lead an elegant life, but my world overflows with eccentrics, artists, and activists and we have great potlucks. I don’t have a new book with big press but I love this column, I’m excited about a play I’m working on, and I love the teaching and speaking opportunities I’m given as Milwaukee poet laureate.
The new story is about community, cooperation, and abundance. In the new story, I am happy for my friends’ accomplishments, for there is plenty for everyone.
Envy says, hmmmph.