Defining Success

“She’s done it all.”

I heard this comment a while back referring to a TV personality. She has written songs and books. She’s written a movie, starred in it, and directed one. She’s co-hosted two morning TV shows. She had a lasting marriage, is a mother, and seems to be loved by many friends. I don’t know her, yet I get the feeling she returns that love back to friends and strangers.

She is talented. I like her.

You may even correctly guess this person’s identity. I’m purposely not going to name her because that really isn’t the point. It could be many people. Those in the public eye often achieve a level of success and celebrity because they are so visible in the public eye. Opportunities and connections come to them like bees to honey. Opportunities and connections are wonderful, as are bees and honey. Nothing is wrong with any of those things.

What I want to write about is success.

How is success defined?

Does success mean doing it all?

It certainly can.

But I haven’t done most of the things this woman has done and I am still successful.

I have family and friends who love me and I love them back.

I established myself in a career I loved where I was respected and made a difference. I feel that overall I was liked and had a good reputation. I worked hard over many years to earn that respect and reputation.

I have traveled extensively including all 50 states and 26 countries.

I have a beautiful home.

I have interests that allow me to grow while still feeling whole.

I see beauty in people and places.

I even have a few books and songs. Unpublished for now. I’d love to see that change with the books. The world may be better off without the songs. Lucky ones have heard these.

Each individual has his or her own definition of success. For a long time, the most familiar model for success meant money and power in the business world. Success was measured with a dollar sign. You were more admired if you held immense power. Popularity was an important indicator of success. You knew you had made it in the world if everyone knew your name. It mattered who you knew and how well connected you were. Success was defined by money and possessions.

Of course, life isn’t this way for most people. I suppose the above description does match a definition of success for a few. The fictitious George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life beautifully demonstrates how someone who doesn’t fit the above description still embodies success. He’s even the richest man in town because he has qualities that matter more than money or power.

Success to me means being loved and feeling happy. I have both of those.

Success means being healthy. I would love not to have cancer. But I do. I am thankful for the health I do have. I can’t feel defeated or unsuccessful when I always try. Some things are out of my hands.

Health means a lot. Life changes when a person has lost their health, mobility, or independence due to an injury or illness. I now live with one of those pre-existing conditions. I’m on Medicare. I receive disability. I can’t take long trips like I once did because of a revolving door of medical appointments. When I do travel someplace, I pack a traveling pharmacy. I try to keep up but need to do less sometimes. A lot has changed. Many health dominoes have toppled over much earlier for me than I thought they would if they toppled at all. The thing with dominoes is that when one domino falls, others do, too. I took my relatively good health before cancer for granted. When a person has good health, they do have everything. I still have a lot, but life is different.

Feeling happy and healthy are the two forces that guide any feelings of success I have.

I am not “doing it all.” Having/Doing it all means different things to different people. It’s all relative to an individual. If I don’t have what someone else has does it mean I am lacking, or vice versa if the situation is reversed? My goals are to be as happy and as healthy as I can be. I still want to get up in the morning with the intention to somehow be helpful if possible and to live joyfully. I want to go to sleep at night with the satisfaction that I succeeded.

Take a moment and think of a time when you felt successful. What had you done? How did you feel?

I’ll give a few examples that may trigger some ideas.

One of my extracurricular activities in high school was forensics. I was a storyteller. Although I never came in first at a meet, I did place well enough to earn a trophy once. The trophy wasn’t all that important. I felt successful in retelling a story so well that I painted a picture with only my words and captured my audience. I also felt extremely successful that I never passed out during a telling. I had a wide range of standards to define success in those days.

I also am privileged to present a small scholarship to a graduating high school student who plans to major in education. It isn’t much, but it’s important for me to be able to give back. I feel successful that I can support someone’s dream in a small way. Still feeling connected to the educational community also makes me feel successful.

Reaching goals enable a person to feel successful. When I finish a hike or a bike ride I feel successful because I have completed something from start to finish. When I’m able to lift more weight or meet a new benchmark in my training sessions I feel successful because I know I have made progress. Goals can be small to still feel successful. I know someone who had a brief stay in the hospital and needed to move around more even though it was painful to walk far. She told me one of the nurses saw her making a slow lap around the halls on the floor. Afterward, the nurse came into her room and made three boxes on the whiteboard where general notes were written about diet, meds, and other plans. She checked off one box for one lap and told my friend she needed to do two more that day. My friend confided in me she really didn’t want to because walking hurt and she was so slow. But those empty boxes stared at her waiting to be crossed off. The boxes were such small things, but very motivating. She did what she had to do. She simply crossed them off without walking to make it look like she had done the work. No, she didn’t, but I wouldn’t have put it past her. She did two more laps, each one faster than the last. She was very pleased with herself. I was proud of her.

No money, fame, or power were in any of these examples. Success truly came from a place of happiness, being able to help, and being healthy enough to get something done.

As long as I can find a way to feel happy, helpful, and healthy, I will be successful.

I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts on how you define success.

My Mom: Memories of Love and Loss

My mom made the biggest impact on me from anyone I have ever known. She has been gone for six years and I haven’t written anything about her, not even notes.

Why?

Grief.

I couldn’t handle jotting down ideas. It’s still too fresh, but at the same time it feels like it’s been a million years without her.

Today is Mother’s Day.

I am ready to share.

I think.

Violets hold strong memories for me. It started with a violet that first belonged to my grandma. The porch off the kitchen of my grandma’s farmhouse was a greenhouse of sorts during the summer months. The light was perfect to grow an assortment of plants, one being violets. One such violet came to my mom when my grandma died from cancer. It was already huge but continued to thrive for another fifteen or so years. My mom had a knack like my grandma. It went uncared for when my mom was so sick and I thought it was past help when I discovered it. I took it to a local gardening store for a second opinion with the hope that I was wrong. Unfortunately, they agreed with me. However, I decided to give it one more try before I gave in to what I thought was inevitable. Do you know what happened? The violet came back! It had more blooms on it than ever. I started many new plants from the grandmother violet. Many of those have been redistributed to family, friends, and former co-workers.

Eventually, the grandmother violet stopped thriving. Its stem arched and twisted like an arthritic finger. It was very old and long past its expected lifespan. Being so twisted, I didn’t notice when the stem broke away from the roots. By the time I did, it was too late. I struggled to throw it out. I rescued it and had kept it going for years. It was a visual reminder of my mom and grandma. I couldn’t lose it on top of all I had already lost. One day, I finally accepted it was gone, and took what was left and buried it, figuring it was better to return it to the earth than chuck it in the garbage. Something that held so much value didn’t belong in the trash, discarded like it meant nothing.

It meant a lot.

I also needed to reframe how I thought about this magnificent violet. It was a life-giving plant. So many new plants came from one plant, much like the offspring from my grandma in my family tree. Friends and family still send me photos when the violets I’ve given them bloom. In this way, I feel like small parts of my family live on. Maybe the memories are just mine, but good memories deserve to keep blooming. Violets in bloom do this for me with fond memories of two of my favorite people.

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These are two of the many violets in my home.

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Now that I’ve chosen to write about my sweet mom, allow me to share a couple more memories.

I remember one summer day when she was mowing the back lawn. My father was still alive and not yet retired. I was also out in back reading and not being helpful. Yes, I know I should have helped more. The mower had stopped. She restarted it and the mower lurched forward with remarkable speed and headed across the lawn. It was a self-propelled model. My mom grabbed it and held on as her little short legs hurried to keep up with it. She regained control so it didn’t careen into a tree. I know I probably shouldn’t be smiling right now, but smiles are better than tears.

Another time she was outside gardening in a flowerbed I had encouraged her to start. I was older and home visiting for the weekend. This memory finds me once again out in back not being helpful. She stood up a little too fast from weeding and lost her balance. With surprising agility, she jumped over the flowerbed and just kept running across the yard until she slowed to a stop. I didn’t know she had that athletic ability in her! The flowerbed was a source of enjoyment for many years. Black-eyed Susans thrived and prospered.

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Black-eyed Susans took over the garden.

When I moved back to my hometown and got a teaching job at my former elementary school, my mom was there to help. I would bring her to school to help set up my classroom at the end of summer. She was my number one helper. Truthfully, she was my only helper. My mom did a good job cutting out laminated materials, putting up bulletin boards, and other small odds and ends that were huge time savers. She was great company. I’d stop by and visit a bit after the first day of school and let her know how the day went. I have countless memories of her being in my corner.

Another frequent memory I have of my mother is how she’d expect me to know answers to her questions without providing me much (any) information. She called me up so many times to ask, “Who’s that person that we saw at that place doing that thing?” I knew her so well. Most times I could figure it out. We talked every day. I miss that a lot. Whereas I can still talk to her, the conversations are not quite the same. I wrote to her in a grief journal for a few years after she died. It provided a much-needed connection that was part of my grieving and healing work.

We took many trips to Door County in summers when it was just the two of us. It was so easy to travel with her. We walked on trails not knowing where they would lead. Thankfully, they were always circular and we ended back where we started. We indulged in cherry desserts at dinner. We savored ice cream at two particular ice cream establishments. Our pace was never hurried. Sometimes we just sat by the water and visited. We watched a couple of beautiful sunsets. One year she got three consecutive holes-in-one at miniature golfing. She didn’t mind the attention it drew. I am glad there are memories of her around every corner when I visit today.

My mom died from metastatic breast cancer. It was painful to watch her worsen for her last final months. Slowly. Irreversibly. All the while, I was recovering from treatments from the very thing that was killing her. Pain for her. Pain for me. The various benchmarks of death inching closer are not things I care to remember. It’s excruciatingly hard to forget images that haunt me. Trauma mixes in with grief. I look far too much like her. Most of the time I consider this a very good thing. I can even see how she looked like my grandma. It’s when I relive memories of my mom during her last days that I’m not so fond of the resemblance.

These gut-wrenching memories don’t help me. They serve me in no positive way. There is no beauty in them. I am never going to be glad for those moments. It’s really hard work, but I am trying to shift to happier memories when the bad ones get triggered. Happy times are the beautiful moments filled with joy that I’m glad to remember. I finally started my list of happy memories I don’t want to forget. They are nothing more than bullet styled ideas that I can add details to later.

Grief is a lot like paper in a paper shredder . . . the original piece of paper still exists but has changed to an unrecognizable form. It will never be the same again. It never can be put back together. Maybe the paper gets recycled and becomes whole once more, but it’s a different wholeness with different print and perhaps a different texture.

Another shredding is always possible.

That’s grief.

I still have moments where I feel completely shredded.

March and April are months that are filled with more grief for me than other months. May historically is a happy month for me. I am always glad when May arrives. Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be sad. It is for many though who have a sick mother, have recently lost their mother, yearn to become a mother, or may even be a mom herself who isn’t well.

Grief shows up on unexpected days as easily as on expected days like birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. It comes and goes in waves. I can be okay at a funeral or visitation and then almost lose it in a grocery store. Whenever grief washes over me, I need to acknowledge it and let it pass. It washes back out to an imagined sea soon enough. Grief is ongoing. I swim in it, towel off, and am okay until the next wave. I work through grief and try not to get stuck there. No one should stay stuck in grief.

On Mother’s Day, I need to focus on good memories. The disturbing memories I have need to be banished, or at least minimized, so I don’t have a visceral reaction. So I don’t stay stuck. There is no point in remembering my mom immobile and unresponsive in a hospital bed, still breathing but unable to eat, speak, or open her eyes, and already gone in so many ways. When I look at photos of my mom in better days, she is happy. These remind me of pleasant memories. Even if I’m not in the picture, I go back and am happy in that moment again with her. Happy memories are the places I need to linger every day and not just on Mother’s Day.

I close my eyes and let the good memories fill my heart.

I see her stand in the front window where she’d always wave goodbye to me.

I hear her voice and uncontrollable laughter.

I smell the angel food cake she always baked for my birthday.

I taste her special cran-raspberry and lemon jello dessert salad.

If I try hard, I feel my mother’s hug.

I know how much I was loved.

That’s the best memory of all and never leaves me.

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