Go ahead and laugh, but as I pushed my cart through the towering aisles of crackers and chips at Costco, it hit me that I was wholly unremarkable - and that a small voice in my head had never thought it would come to this. My accomplishments are too trivial, my errors too mundane, the ripples emanating from the waves I've made too small to make my name go down in history. All those years my mother worked like a dog to make sure that I had every privilege in life, and here I am, as anonymous as a squirrel in all but a tiny universe. I can't even walk through the San Jose airport without being completely ignored.
So what? you say. Last I checked, Kate Beckinsale wasn't jockeying for the lead role in my life story, either. Yes, well, that isn't making me feel any better. The voice in my head doesn't have any opinions about whether you would go down in history; it is all about me.
It hasn't been without effort. I work hard, I challenge myself, I parent like a tiger (well, maybe a zoo tiger). But compared to Virginia Woolf or Marie Curie or Hillary Clinton, my fingerprints are looking pretty faint. I haven't taken the kinds of risks that powerful people take. The best I can strive for at this point, I thought to myself miserably, is not to be a malignancy.
So this is what a mid-life crisis feels like: that sinking feeling that my life is more than half over, and I've yet to figure out what I'm doing here. It feels too late for me to achieve greatness - and perhaps more disturbing, it sounds like a lot of work I'd rather not do. It's not just a matter of time running out; it's that I'm not even wired for greatness. I never was.
And if you're not going to be great, what is The Point in being?
I was doing quite a number on myself with this exercise. But then I heard a voice that was not so small, and actually not inside my head:
MOM! I need a TOWEL!!!!!
And suddenly, I was important. Without me, my daughter would apparently never be dry again.
The older I get, the more frequently my mind wanders toward a vision of my legacy. But history only has so many open seats for immortals. Life is a much more finely-woven cloth than the actions of a few great people. Martin Luther King's famous speech would not have been famous if there hadn't been more than 250,000 civil rights supporters marching on Washington that day. Pop icons are only stars because of their fans. Spanning out from those remarkable people whose stories have made Hollywood blockbusters and New York Times bestsellers are millions and millions of supporting actors. We create joy. We create beauty. We make life better for a small circle of people we love and care for. And we work for our dreams. This is where I live: in one of those circles. In concert with millions of other circles, we create the symphony of life - the thing that will eventually be called history.
In her memoir Paula, Isabel Allende writes to her unconscious daughter while sitting at her bedside in a Madrid hospital:
In terms of the cosmos and the long course of history, we are insignificant; after we die nothing will change, as if we had never existed. Nonetheless, by the measures of our own precarious humanity, you, Paula, are more important to me than my own life, or the sum of almost all other lives. Every day several million persons die and even more are born but, for me, you alone were born, only you can die.
This is the heart of it: how I feel about my own children, and my own Paula, and about my mother, my sister, the friends who have become my California family. They are more important to me than the sum of almost all other lives. My inspiration is to live out the second half of my life with full consciousness that I am the same to them. If that isn't a high standard, I don't know what is.
I am writing the screenplay of my life as I live it. It is a movie that the people who loved me will continue to watch after I leave this world. So I better make it a good one.
We are almost at the California Avenue station... it is time for the next scene.