Low man on the totem pole
After Miss G and I sobbed our way through yet another Best Picture nominee yesterday, I called Dan to tell him we were on our way home.
“How was the movie?” he asked.
“Depressing,” I said. “I’ve done absolutely nothing with my life, even though I’m not in a wheelchair and I don’t have ALS. Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking is literally solving the mysteries of the entire universe.”
“Totally,” muttered Miss G under her breath before blowing her nose one last time.
“I knew I didn’t want to see it as soon as I saw the trailer,” says Dan, not unsympathetically.
There’s a quote (which I can’t attribute, because I don’t know where it came from) that goes something like “Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlight reel.” But what about the opposite problem of feeling like even your personal bests look like amateur hour?
A friend of mine used to say her biggest fear was that if anyone made a biopic of her life story, the role of herself would be played by Diane Lane: “I just want my life to be more than a Diane Lane movie. You know?”
Me too. I think we all want that. I think we all fear being irrelevant, we all worry we won’t make our mark on the world. That the tar pit of quiet desperation will suck us slowly but inexorably into extinction. That mediocrity is the best we can hope for.
Because simply living life has, apparently, become not good enough. Grabbing a pizza and watching Game of Thrones in your sweats and just enjoying being together with someone after a day of being apart– that doesn’t count as time well-spent. Instead, we need to crack unbreakable codes to win World War II. March for civil rights. Become the best snipers who ever lived. Launch our comeback career. Our life stories must become Oscar-worthy.
This week, I got to help my nieces with a school project: painting cardboard tubes to look like birch bark. Later, each of the kids in the class would decorate his or her own animal mask, then attach them to make a totem pole.
“This reminds me of a blog post I’ve been meaning to write,” I said to my sister as I snapped a picture of our work in progress. “Did you know that being on the bottom of a totem pole was actually a sign of honor? It meant you had the most stories, so you got to go first. So low man on the totem pole is actually the most important.”
“Then that’s where I want to be,” piped up my eldest niece. “First.”
“Of course you do,” my sister and I deadpanned simultaneously, because that comment perfectly sums up her entire personality.
Sometimes I wished I shared that drive. That whatever-it-is that propels us onward and upward to fame and fortune. The whole ‘center of the meat, cushions on the seat, houses on the street where it’s sunny’ as an end goal thing.
But I don’t. Every one of my personal ambitions ends with “… so I have more time to [whatever I’m into at the moment].” Go on adventures with Dan and the dogs. Read books. Work on art projects. Write stuff. Cook things. Paint with nieces.
Success isn’t its own reward for me and never has been.
Not that I’m not passionate; I really am. But my number one passion is living real life. That’s it. I just want to enjoy the day-to-day without feeling grouchy and inauthentic by bedtime.
Like being low man on the totem pole, lack of success is not a bad thing. Success and happiness come in all different shapes and sizes; we define our own versions of what those concepts mean to us.
One of the movies up for Best Picture this year is Boyhood, a movie during which absolutely nothing earth-shattering happens. Nothing except watching some kid grow up amid the luminous simplicity of everyday. What a great reminder that days add up into stories– stories that themselves become the foundation of our lives. Like a totem pole, our stories are what make us important– not our placement: high or low.
What story are you writing about yourself today?