Writer Anne Lamott is careful with the souls of her students. "I try to make sure they understand that writing . . . will not open the doors that most of them hope for. It will not make them well. It will not give them the feeling that the world has finally validated their parking tickets, that they have in fact arrived" (Bird by Bird).
I remembered that counsel with sadness while reading a personal essay by a fortyish guest writer in an issue of Newsweek, titled "My Transoceanic Midlife Crisis." The subtitle was: "I quit my job and ended my marriage to row the Atlantic"-which spared me the unseemliness of gossiping to you that this lady actually quit her job and ended her marriage to row the Atlantic.
I want to go very easy on the woman because I have done stuff like this myself, and because she is on a banana peel and doesn't need me to make it worse. But honestly, the article took my breath away: Not a hint of problems in the marriage-that, at least, used to be the excuse for leaving one's spouse-like he was beating her, or had halitosis. She writes unabashedly: "I pared life down to the basics to find out what really mattered to me, to find out what was left when I was defined by who I was, not by what I owned or who I was with. I was letting go of everything that had represented security-my job, my husband, my home, my possessions." (Note: Her husband doesn't even get top billing on the Defenestration.)
Let us be clear: It is not that the woman left her husband because a Sailor inside was always denied for so many years. No. She describes her new unhitched status thus: "It was liberating, but I was like a carpenter with a brand-new set of tools and no wood to work on. I needed a project."
She needed a project. Poor baby. Marriage not being much of a project, she kicked around a list of ideas, and sailing won out over "less extreme options, such as an organic baking business and planning a motorcycle trip." Personally, I would put crimes of passion-like adultery or a latent need to travel with the Cirque du Soleil-a rung above what this woman did. She chucked her covenant for no good reason. If only the note on the kitchen table had read something like: "I had to follow my calling to orphan work in Sudan. I hope you understand."
What do you do the day you wake up after the boat trip is done? And the frisson over getting your picture in Newsweek turns into the reality of actually receiving your Newsweek? Maybe you have five whole minutes of thrill, and then you realize that next week a new issue will come, and you will be nobody again. And you will spend the rest of your graying life at drab parties, hoping someone will drop a prompt so you can brag about the time you went solo from La Gomera to Antigua.
Then comes the obituary, that 2-inch, back-page smudge of print that factored heavily in the woman's choices. She wrote: "Desperate to figure out what I should do, I sat down one day and wrote two versions of my obituary. The first was the one that I wanted, one that read like the obits of risk takers." Good luck with that. My late husband once calmed me down from a fear-of-man fit by saying, "Don't worry about what people think of you. They don't even think of you."
Jesus said those who try to save themselves will lose themselves, and those who lose themselves for Him will save themselves. The watchword is not self-actualization but love.
Anne Lamott continues: "One more thing about publication: When this book of mine came out, the one that did pretty well, the one that necessitated the buying of a new dress, I found myself stoned on all the attention, and then lost and derailed, needing a new fix every couple of days and otherwise going into withdrawal . . . 'If you're not enough before the gold medal, you won't be enough with it.' You may want to tape this to the wall near your desk."