February 19, 2015
I’m having a George Bailey kind of day. You, know, George Bailey, the main character in the classic move, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
In case you’re one of the thirty-eight people over the age of 40 in North America who hasn’t seen this movie, here’s a brief synopsis: George Bailey is this really smart guy with big dreams, living in a sleepy little town in upstate New York. As a teenager, he can’t wait to escape the confines of his boring old home town, but through a series of events, most of which involve him making sacrifices for others, George ends up staying in tiny Bedford Falls, a slave to the tired old Building and Loan where he carries on the family business and is a frequent target of the mean-spirited jabs of Bitter Old Mr. Potter, who has lots of money but no soul. George is mostly happy with his life – he’s happily married, and the father of four lovely children, but he sort of feels like life has passed him by as he realizes that all those dreams he had way back when are never going to happen.
Because George is a nice guy, he’s never fired his Idiot Uncle Billy, who’s absent-mindedness lands George in a pickle so desperate he concludes that the only solution is to kill himself. I know, I know, I’m leaving out a lot of important exposition, but this is a 1,500 word blog, so….Utterly hopeless, George decides to throw himself into the river. Before he can end his life, the Big Guy Upstairs (you know…God?) intervenes in the form of Clarence, an angel third class, who knocks some sense into George by showing him what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.
And of course, George sees how he has made a difference for a lot of people and that he has made the world a better place in ways he never imagined, even if he’s never left Bedford Falls or worked in the Argentinian oil fields or built a skyscraper. In the end, George runs through Bedford Falls so happy to be alive he doesn’t care if he gets arrested and spends the rest of his life in jail, which, of course, he doesn’t, because the whole town pitches in to help him, and everyone is happy.
I love that movie. I do. We watch it every Christmas Eve, and I try to stay up for the whole thing, because it’s such a wonderfully affirming message that just about everyone who’s made it to middle age can identify with. I love how George always does the right thing and is (mostly) content to step aside while others benefit from his sacrifice and rise to levels of glory and recognition that George will never know. At the same time, though, I feel his aching desire to have done more, to have had a bigger life. Sometimes, I feel that way, too.
Now, before all my Facebook friends (who are the only people who ever read my blog) leave comments on my wall telling me what a great person I am, and how much I have to thankful for, believe me – I know. Well, I know how much I have to be thankful for, anyway. But sometimes, I ache, too. I think about all those dreams I had back when I was in college, and seeing as I’m now well into the third act of my life (with the gray hair and creaky bones to prove it), I have accepted that those dreams aren’t gonna happen. I’m never going to be an Oscar-winning film actress, I’m never going to backpack through Europe and Thailand and Kenya, and I’m never going to have a cover-of-the-magazine, best-of-the-best, award-winning Big Time career. There was a time that I believed that I was going to be a mighty conqueror in whatever profession I chose, that I would rise to the top of my ranks, whatever they were, and would be internationally (or, at the very least, regionally) recognized as the best at what I did, whatever that was. Well, that hasn’t happened.
I’d probably feel less bad about this if I weren’t so well-educated. By that, I don’t mean that I’m necessarily all that smart or intellectual, but I was given the great gift of an outstanding education, and while I’ve managed to eke out 25-plus years as a fairly adequate attorney, I can’t say I’ve set the world on fire with my legal brilliance. Probably the best I can hope for in the decade or so that remains of my professional life is a partnership that will afford me little more than the continued opportunity to draft motions, justify my time entries to a claims adjuster, and fret over meeting my billable hours until I’m too old to wear a bikini.
I can point to many reasons why I haven’t exactly made much of a mark in the legal world. For one, I took a number of years off to stay home with my kids, and for another, my career has always taken a backseat to my husband’s, a decision I have wholeheartedly supported, just as my husband has always supported my career right back. As well, although I’m a good-enough attorney, I have the insight to appreciate without feeling bad that I lack the sort of legal brilliance that lands people jobs on the federal bench. Most days, I’m okay with the fact that I haven’t had a career that includes a corner office, Learjets, or frequent appearances before Justices Ginsburg and her posse, because I have a lot of other things in my life that make me happy and fulfilled. Like a really, really great husband, and three really, really great kids, and two really, really flatulent dogs. I have a happy marriage, a happy home, and I’m healthy. There’s more, but you get the picture: Not much to complain about, unless you’re sort of spoiled and horrid.
But today, I’m feeling spoiled and horrid, and today, I want to matter more. I want to have made more of a difference in my career. I want to be more important, to be recognized as really, really good at what I do (as opposed to being the world’s oldest associate). Just once, I’d like to feel like I’ve achieved some modicum of the promise of my education, that I have made good on the imperative of my beloved Mount Holyoke that presented me with “the challenge to excel” all those years back. Yeah, I’ve raised good kids, and yeah, I’ve done a lot of things right. But have I excelled? Doesn’t feel like it.
As luck would have it on this George Bailey day, having suffered the slings and arrows of another ten hours toiling in the soul-nourishing world of insurance defense litigation, I came home to find my Alumnae Quarterly awaiting me and was once again made aware of the many ways in which my fellow alums have excelled – they’re all out there forming non-profits, sitting on boards, starting their own businesses, or working in the Obama administration (and even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, you have to admit, that’s kind of cool). No one ever writes in to the Alumnae Quarterly, “I drive my kids to karate and I go to the grocery store and I draft really boring briefs that no one reads and I fold laundry. Also, I have bingo wings and the beginnings of a turkey neck.” Maybe we should. I don’t tend to share with my former classmates the ups and downs of my life as a brown-polyester attorney living in Suburbia, U.S.A. amidst the big box stores and chain restaurants. What’s special or important about that?
But here I am, at the ripe age of fifty, old enough to know that while my life is by no means over, there’s not much chance that I’ll be shaking the cobwebs off those pie in the sky dreams of thirty years ago. One of the most poignant lines I’ve ever heard is the following from Bruce Springsteen’s “The River:” “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Bruce, who always gets it right, also talked about the “fear so real you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” It’s hard to imagine Bruce has ever had occasion to experience either of those particular emotions, but I have. All those dreams I had as a woman with a flat stomach and knees that didn’t pop when I walked up the stairs, are they lies? And all those moments that haven’t come – what am I supposed to do with them?
Yeah, I’m a spoiled brat. There are people out there who are battling cancer, who have lost a spouse, who are out of work and don’t know how they are going to feed their kids. There are those struggling with mental illness, who lead lives of quiet desperation, who are lonely and sad and have no hope. I’m lucky, and I know it. Most of the time, I know how much I’ve got to be thankful for, just like George Bailey did, but still, that didn’t stop him from occasionally thinking about running away from it all, from his lovely wife Mary and his adorable daughter Zuzu and all the rest of his kids and Idiot Uncle Billy.
Sometimes you want to just set aside all the responsibilities and have-to’s and dirty dishes and field trip permission slips and time sheets and oil changes and depositions and say, “I’m going to pursue my dreams and do what I want to do, and I don’t care how my kid gets home from soccer practice or how we’re going to pay for her braces.”
But George Bailey didn’t do that; he didn’t run off to Mount Bedford (or anywhere else) with Violet Bick. He found a way to be happy working at the Building and Loan while his brother became a college football star and was a war hero who killed a lot of Nazis and then went on to have a brilliant career as a glass manufacturer. Which is a lot to compete with, even if you are married to Donna Reed and have a really neat house.
I’m not going to run off, either, because for one, I love my family and would be lost without them, and for another, where am I going to run, and what is there, that would be better than what I already have? Nothing, really. The high-power career as a $700-an-hour attorney with the Big Important Office and really fabulous shoes wouldn’t make me any happier than I am now; in fact, I’d probably be a lot less happy, since $700-an-hour attorneys with Big Important Offices don’t get to spend much time with their flatulent pets.
I guess I’m just going to have to power through today and hope that the gratitude that usually infuses most of my days will be waiting for me when I wake up tomorrow. If I’m lucky, by then, I will once again feel in my bones all the joy, satisfaction and contentment
that my family, friends, and, yes, even my job has brought me, and I will happily tuck my dreams of grandeur and fame back amongst the cobwebs where they belong. After all, even when I’m feeling spoiled and horrid, it’s a wonderful life.