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In my adolescence, the child I saw in that mirror in no way resembled the person I've become, and I imagine many of us can say the same. You wanted to be a doctor or ballerina, the next person to walk on the moon, a teacher who stirs the imagination of students. Did those dreams come true? Perhaps a more important question: Was your future defined by your own dreams or by the dreams and expectations of others? Some authors in this collection were encouraged by the people in their lives, while others have succeeded despite them.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a society that gauges its citizens not by the content of our dreams but by the accomplishments in our careers. There's a presumption that successful people-that is, people who earn an excellent living or get mentioned in the newspaper from time to time-must certainly feel satisfied, even exhilarated, for having achieved so much. In many cases, I'm sure this is true. But maybe a question we need to ask ourselves is, What is our own gauge for success? If we could answer this, we might understand why some of us set the bar so low, demanding little of ourselves and waiting to see what happens, while others aim unrealistically high.
More than a few authors in this collection write about the desire to achieve, as well as those obstacles that hindered their journey: unexpected parenthood, family pressures, economic need, emotional trauma. In Alan Dershowitz's poignant and sometimes hilarious essay, we learn that he had high personal expectations, yet his family and teachers saw little academic future for the boy and urged him toward successful mediocrity. Eileen Goudge writes about being a divorced mother on welfare at the age of twenty-one. It took discipline, a borrowed typewriter, and the ability to avert her eyes from her landlord flasher, but she sat down and wrote. Today, more than five million of her books are in print worldwide, many of them New York Times best sellers.
Numerous writers in this collection attained success in midlife, but one did so as a teenager. Joyce Maynard was a college freshman when the New York Times Magazine published her article "An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life," launching her as one of the country's top authors. But what happened when, decades later, she found herself grown, the mother of three adult children, and sitting across from a much younger man who was clearly attracted to her?
There are so many variables that affect how successful we become. One of the most powerful is that of family. It is no secret that a happy family, encouraging parents, and a carefree childhood are strong foundations for a healthy adult life. A few of the contributors enjoyed that gift, while others did not. Writer and psychotherapist Margot Duxler discloses how her recovery from childhood abuse led her into a life of caregiving, beginning with the adoption of a teenage girl when Margot was still in her twenties.
Few authors today write about family and courage with more insight and humor than Christine O'Hagan. In her essay, we learn about a challenging youth made bearable by the hilarious, beyond-fiction characters who populated her world; a memoir waiting to happen. When she married and had children, it was this same insight and biting Irish humor put to the page that guided her through a tragedy no mother should have to bear.
How many of us grew up swearing to ourselves that we would never become our parents? It seems to be one of life's dirty little tricks that it happens nevertheless. Do we accept this with maturity-even relief, if we come to the realization that Mom and Dad were not, as we once thought, Satan incarnate-and embrace the similarities? Sandra Gulland rose from the antiwar sit-ins of Berkeley's wild '60s to a woman centered and at peace, now writing best-selling historical novels about turbulent eras of the past. At the same time, she is ever aware of her own history and increasingly aware of how much it has been shaped by her mother: her tastes, her passions, her love of words. "We become our parent," she writes, reminiscing with tenderness about her mother's final days and the time they spent together. "How can it be otherwise?"
Whether we mature into replicas of our parents or forge a path-emotionally, spiritually, socially-that takes us in unique and unexpected directions, we somehow learn to live with the disappointment of dreams unfulfilled. But what happens when we work toward some distant and seemingly unattainable goal, and then reach it? Does this give us the happiness and fulfillment we expected? For those who became the corporate CEO but whose secret dream was to be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, success might be both sweet and bitter. This dichotomy between reality and fantasy, in the form of childhood yearnings unfulfilled, is explored in several of the essays in this book. You'll discover that while most of the authors valued their adult accomplishments, there was nevertheless that crucial moment when the little voice whispering ballet dancer, talk show host, batting champion was forever silenced.
Perhaps there are as many reasons why our goals are not met-illness, war, hardship, family obligations-as there are ways to leap those barriers and find success. I wonder how many of us developed Plan A for our lives and suddenly realized we were living Plan B ... and it was wonderful. Your company downsized, then you found your dream job; your marriage failed, and you met the love of your life. Reading these authors, you'll be reminded how so many of us are thrilled by the unexpected direction life often takes. Being given a second, or a third, or even a fourth chance doesn't mean we've failed. It means we have the opportunity to live our life infused with a vibrancy and purpose we hardly dared to anticipate.
Years ago, I met a man whose specialty was putting together funding for Silicon Valley start-ups. When the funds were in place, he would take on the role of chief financial officer and stay with the company until it was ready to fly. Once it launched, he would resign his position and look for the next start-up, taking with him substantial shares of stock. He did this for nearly five years, amassing a considerable fortune along the way. One day, his mother called. She was in her eighties, and her voice quivered as she expressed her concerns about her son's life. "But I'm doing great!" he enthused. After a long silence, his mother responded, "You say so, dear, but you never seem to be able to hold a job." He was a risk taker, his mother was a child of the Depression, and his sense of adventure and joy caused her untold anxiety, perhaps because, like so many of us, he was living his dreams, not hers.
There is a thread that runs through this book, and it is the expression of a sense of completeness, of being whole. In many ways, this relates to the importance of learning to live in our skin, of becoming comfortable with who we are. Feeling complete, knowing ourselves, opens the door to creativity and risk taking. You might be surprised to discover that it's not fame that led many of these writers to this place, but their ability to transform that surprising journey we call life into an adventure. Few journeys from obscurity to celebrity are as dramatic as that of Beverly Donofrio, who went from being a teenage mother to a convicted felon, and then college student to notable author. Now living in a monastery in the Colorado mountains, she reveals with humor and poignancy what led her to this place of peace and forgiving.
As important as it is to forgive ourselves, we must also forgive others. Michael Bader explores this challenge through his experience at his father's deathbed. The journey he took toward resolution with a man he loved and admired, and for whom he also felt great disappointment and resentment, reminds us that forgiveness may not be as powerful as the ability to let go.
In these pages, celebrated authors tackle universal questions about the choices they made and the achievements and disappointments that followed. They explore the person they expected to become, the person they perhaps desperately wanted to be-or feared they might be-and the person they are today. Their essays run the gamut of personal reflection, from exalting at having lived a long and productive life, to feeling that they have yet to reach their goals. Malachy McCourt shares his hardscrabble life in Limerick, as frightening as it was suffocating. How did he survive? Perhaps it was his philosophy: "If you want to give God a good laugh, tell Him your future plans."
However the authors view their lives or approach their personal revelations in this book, and whether their essays are funny or poignant, wicked or thought provoking, the heart of this anthology beats around one prevailing question: When you look in the mirror, who do you see?
Excerpted from THE FACE IN THE MIRROR Copyright © 2009 by Victoria Zackheim. Excerpted by permission.
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