Sunday, October 10, 2010

Damn you, Daisy Buchanan

"All right...I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool -- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool."
The Great Gatsby
Chapter 1, Daisy on her newborn girl.

Child One is melting down.  SAT prep, college essays, regular homework, honors homework, the speech she has to write for a fundraiser, the horse she doesn’t have time to ride, the boyfriend who disappointed, the best girlfriend who disappointed more – all these things are taking their toll and the morning began with great heaving sobs and a snotty mess.  “I’m not going to get into a top school” caterwauled into “I’m disappointing”, snuffled past a few other indecipherable exclamations and ended finally at utter despair and a muffled, “I’m not extraordinary.”

I think of myself as being rather solid in my ability to deal with Child One’s teenage meltdowns.  I recognize when they result from exhaustion, hormones or a particular incident.  But this one sort of stumped me.  This one moved past glistening tears of woe and built to a good hour of full body-wracking sobs.   I soothed her through the college anxiety – of course, I assured her, you will get into a great school.  I worked to unwind the myth of disappointment and assure her that is the last thing anyone in her life feels.  But the final statement proved harder to debunk.  The final statement gave me pause.  Because the final statement – I am not extraordinary – is one that haunts me daily and has for most of my life.  

This question of being extraordinary – of living an extraordinary life – may be unanswerable.  It may be that even those most of us would consider extraordinary suffer from feeling not quite good enough from time to time.   The genius who makes a scientific breakthrough, the mother who devotes herself daily to the needs of her handicapped child, the scholar, the day laborer, the teacher, the doctor - who gets to decide which is extraordinary and how did we, each of us, get the idea that our self worth is somehow defined by that which is so ethereal?

To me, Child One is absolutely extraordinary.  She is at the top of her class.   She is adored by her teachers, she is an amazing writer and was chosen to be the single student speaker in all of Southern California at a charity event in a few weeks.  And through it all, she remains a lovely human – a good friend, a concerned sister, an engaged and attentive daughter.  That combination of intelligence and caring, of presence and poise, of big heart with a dash of cynicism add up to a sum total of something truly out of the ordinary.  Particularly when embodied in a seventeen year old girl.  But Child One is also smart enough, and aware enough, to know that she is not the absolute best at everything.  Her equestrian skills are solid.  But she is not the best rider in the ring.  She is an excellent student, but it doesn’t all come easily.  She works hard, she’s intensely disciplined and wildly diligent.

And so here is where I start to think about Daisy Buchanan and what she said of her daughter.  Here is where I start to wonder if Daisy was right.  A little fool – a beautiful little fool – might not worry so much about raising her SAT score from very, very good to excellent.  A little fool might re-write her speech one less time or go more quickly over her studies before a test.  A little fool might not notice that her friend who she thought was smart and loyal is really just an insecure girl with an obsessive crush.  And a little fool might not think, ever once in her whole life, about whether or not she is extraordinary.

The point is this – sometimes being smart, being good at things and excelling is a lot harder than being mediocre.  That feeling that nothing is ever good enough – nothing is ever as good as it could be – will follow my sweet Child One around wherever she goes for the rest of her life. Her father has it. I have it. Most people I know have it.  And we all wear it like heavy armor.

So I understand Daisy.  I know why she would wish her daughter “a little fool.”  But I’m awfully glad Child One is not – I’m awfully glad my little girl is burdened with the complexity of intelligence and ambition and that she lives with the double-edged sword of self-awareness.  

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