In later years I would come to understand that kindness often uses an indirect delivery system.
When she was 18 and I was 10, my oldest sister would come home from college and say offhandedly, “Play something on the piano for me.” We had a maple Wurlitzer in the dining room, a gift from my grandmother. It sat on a braided rug and my mother’s violin hung on the wall next to it. Everyone played.
I didn’t need to be asked twice. I’d pound out a Bach Two-Part Invention as if my life depended on it; a body memory my hands still carry. Even if I don’t touch a piano for a decade and have no sheet music, these compositions live inside me, imprinted somehow. The music remains accessible when other memories have gone.
Our father had left the family just months before my sister left for school, coincidental timing which abruptly cut our numbers nearly in half. I was lonely and appreciative of the attention, although I didn’t have the words to say so then.
I’m looking for them now.
This is also the sister who has always thought I was going to be famous–write a bestseller, be a stand-up comedienne like Tina Fey, or a comedic actress like Kristin Wigg.
Your lips to God’s ears I tell her on zoom. I’m running out of time. God is cutting it close even for God.
Chop-chop, Divine Order. Shake a leg. Get the lead out.
This kind of prediction is generous and inspiring. We all tend to live up to what’s expected of us, be it good or bad. Expectation is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected. Teachers hold up mirrors. Siblings hold up mirrors. Piano teachers hold up mirrors. Boyfriends hold up mirrors with exceptionally good lighting—like the kind in the dressing rooms at South Moon Under, and we marry them.
But this kind of faith in who you can become, also puts a kind of vague expectation out there that means every day that I am not a literary household name, I’m behind schedule. Disappointing someone. I’m not living up to my potential.
This is a problem. And not a new one.
When I was in elementary school, even exemplary report cards usually contained a qualifier in the margin that read: “Laura is not working up to her potential.” At the time, I thought this criticism was a form of inverted praise. Now I know the difference and I don’t want to be falling short. It’s pretty much my greatest dread.
I figured this out the day I heard a group of people asked to identify their most pronounced fear, and as the moderator went around the room the responses were, “losing a child,” “dying young” “going blind,” and then one person said quietly, “Not living up to my potential,” and I thought, Omg. Spot-on sister. Nailed it. This woman became immediately more interesting. We were both wearing ponytails and running shoes. Hers had covered more miles. I wondered if we might become friends.
This is why the word I’m most anxious about hearing when I get to the proverbial life review is “squandered.” It haunts me. It seems like a worse crime than being a liar or thief. To be a person who didn’t make use of what you were given? Now there’s a failing that includes lazy and ungrateful. If there is such a thing as sin, those are two big ones in my book. They fall just short of the worst: unkindness.
I want to tell whatever cosmic force is tapping its foot, that this is quite likely as good as it gets. As good as I get. But my sister thinks I’m not done. She mentioned it again the other day along with the hope that when I reach my new status I’ll remain in a state of grace.
Oh goodness no, I promised her immediately. Should I ever be publicly recognized for any achievement at all, I’ll be unbearable. Dr. Oz after Oprah.
I’ve always known I’d believe my own press if anyone liked me. I’m just that easily swayed. In the 70’s there was a popular book titled, “I’m Ok, You’re Ok.” The cover featured a black and white photo of a little girl with her arms flung up in triumphant joy.
I bought the book, but I would have titled it, “If You Like me, I Like Me.”
A sibling relationship is quite likely the longest you will ever have. A sibling knows where you came from, who your people are. Whether or not you turned out all right.
But how do you know what your limitations are if your sister is still waiting, and God has been vague? Tossed some gifts in your direction and said, Make something worthy of me.
Give it your all.
Now, give it away.
Last week I saw a workshop advertised like this. “Other workshops teach you skills. We teach the part of you that won’t use them.”
I teach writing workshops. I know how to inspire, encourage and support. To help others reach their potential. But I’m signing up for this one so I can learn for myself what I teach others to do.
Faith and Potential are sisters. One thinks the other is going to be famous someday. Whether or not that is true, what is true is this: gratitude is a body memory, it lives inside us, imprinted for all time, and sometimes thank you appears as a story.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.