“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)
1946’s beloved Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of a man named George Bailey, who had sacrificed his very many big dreams to help others his entire life, and is driven to near-suicide because he sees himself as a “failure” for, among many things, never achieving them. With the help of his loving, ever-patient, long-suffering wife, Mary, and some divine intervention, George comes to realize that “... no man is a failure who has friends.”
Not getting to achieve your dreams doesn’t mean that you aren’t successful. Not getting to achieve your dreams doesn’t mean you are a failure. Sometimes, it means that something better, and meant for you, is waiting.
Success is not a one size fits all model. In order to find your own personal success, you must have introspection, humility, and gratitude.
Before we get into the pep talk portion later in this piece, let me first tell you the story of a little Méxican boy from San Francisco who had very many dreams, and (not unlike George Bailey) gave them up for various circumstances that occurred during his lifetime. I’ll relay it to you as it was told to me, by many people, in many ways. It’s a great one, I promise. You may want to have those tissues handy.
Once upon a time, there was a handsome young Indío named Louis (pronounced “Loo-ee”).
Born “Francisco” on the 27th of July, 1921, Louis changed his name to his step-father’s name after moving to San Francisco from México as a small child with his mother and younger sister. (Born in Tacubaya, but from Puebla, before you ask.)
Louis grew up in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco; he was well-liked by his playmates of all ethnic and religious backgrounds (The Fillmore in the 1930’s was a utopia where kids of all kinds played together harmoniously). He dutifully looked after his sisters and younger cousins. He was a hard-working, but not-always-that-great, student, who at one point had an F- in biology and would draw airplanes and cartoons in the margins of his textbooks (in those days, even at a high school level, you bought and owned your textbooks, so they were technically his!). He was dutiful, devoted, loving, kind, generous, and also extremely talented.
When Louis was in high school, his step-father had a heart attack and died on the job while operating a cable car. Louis was forced to drop out in order to support his now twice-widowed mother and his two sisters. As he had attended a parochial school, the Fathers were all very gracious enough to write him letters of recommendation to potential future employers, about what a hard worker and a good boy he was.
A few years later, the second world war broke out, and Louis, like many young men his age, were eager to enlist their services for their country. Louis had big dreams of being in the Navy. Every day Louis would go to the recruitment/ enrollment office for the United States Navy, and everyday, they would turn him away. (I’ve heard conflicting accounts of why he was rejected. One is that they had too high a number of young men eager to enlist in the Navy,... the other is a joke that he was too short. :) ) One day, after another failed attempt at the recruitment office, Louis came home to his mother handing him a draft notice for the US Army. There would go his dreams of being in the Navy.
His Anglicized name he had adopted from his step-father would most likely prevent him from being placed in a segregated (or quasi-segregated) unit. (Unlike African Americans during WWII, segregation wasn’t an official policy for Latinos, but they were lumped together, along with Native Americans, at suspiciously high percentages.) He would be the only Latino in his eventual unit.
During basic training, some things became abundantly clear: the US Army had a very eager, earnest young man who wasn’t very good at shooting, swimming or driving jeeps. However, they quickly discovered that he was a very handy nerd, who had an incredible knack for photography. His placement became a clear decision: the 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion, better known as The Skylighters, a top-secret outfit using the brand-new technology that would become known as sonar and radar. Our friend Louis would go on to essentially help save the world (though he would never call it that), and he would be taking pictures for the US Army while doing it.
As part of the Skylighters, Louis went on to participate in rescue missions, liberations of cities and towns, and the second wave of the storming of Normandy.
Perhaps the most personally important stop for Louis was a six month stop in Newcastle Upon Tyne in Northern England (originally landing in Scotland and traveling to Newcastle). There his life would change forever. I would go out on a limb and say it sure beat out being in the Navy after all.
It was the end of March. Louis and his fellow soldiers had gone to a restaurant. There she was, busy working. He knew. He exclaimed to his fellow soldiers, and anyone who would listen, that he was going to marry her. He told her that, too. She thought it was just another crazy, obnoxious American GI at it again (for she was beautiful, and they proposed to her all the time). He offered to walk her home after work, and she said yes; it was her birthday. He asked to see her again, and she said yes, suspicious, but bemused.
Over the course of the next few months, he visited her every day. Before visiting her, Louis would stop to visit the little boy next door who was suffering from Polio. Louis would bring him chocolates only American soldiers had access to (because of war rationing). In those days, one of the “cures” or “remedies” for Polio was wrapping children in tight, ice cold bandages and having them lay in the sun (yeah, I don’t understand that, either); those afflicted with Polio were socially ostracized, but that didn’t seem to bother Louis one bit. She could see him visit this boy from her window. He was reassuring, loving, gentle and kind. His compassion and devotion towards others, and love for his family, and hers, were very moving to her. Over the course of the next few months, she and Louis would fall in love.
When it came time for him to be stationed out, he promised to write her every single day (and he did!). Everyone said that they were crazy, that he was just another crazy American GI, that he would never come back for her, etc., etc.,... etc! But he did come back for her. They believed, and when the war was over, they married, and Grandma left England forever.
Louis was my grandfather, and the girl from Newcastle he loved so much was my grandmother. They were married on December 3rd, 1945, and were married for almost 60 years.
There’s a ‘thing’ in Celtic/ Northern/ Scottish lore about “Recognition,” where you “recognize” the soul of someone, usually in the context of true love. I have no doubt in my mind that their souls knew each other. Below is a postcard of Grandpa’s, a photograph of the Gateshead bridge (from when it was then new) he would cross every day to visit Grandma. The last time he crossed that bridge was the day he married her. Only, he didn’t write “bridge.” He wrote “bride.” As in Brìghde/Brìde, Ffraid, Brigit, Brigid, Bríg. (As in, you know, “Brigadoon.”)
Unlike George Bailey, I never once heard Grandpa complain about never getting to fulfill all of his dreams; I don’t even know if he had ever had wanted to be an artist, only that he was incredibly talented. I never once heard him bemoan about not “getting his way” in life or having to give up what was essentially everything for everyone else he loved in his life. That’s just the way that it was. He could have been sore about it and hung up on it for the rest of his life, or he could have been grateful for all of the beautiful things that he did have and accomplish. The only time I remember him complaining (“complaining”) about never getting to be in the Navy was in the context of the story I just told you, though the moral was that something better was coming. He always focused on the things that he did have and achieve instead of being distracted by the “what ifs.”
Which brings us to the pep talk section of this piece, and the various ways we can look at “success”:
-Everyone’s “success” is different.
-You will miss your entire life if you limit yourself to aspiring to someone else’s version of success.
-You must live by your own definitions of success, and those definitions and parameters are allowed to be fluid and to adapt to your needs, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
-Just because you don't “make it” by an obligatory monetary standard does not mean that you haven’t “made it,” or still been successful.
Not “making it” is not a “waste” of your talents. It is not a “waste” of your acting talents if you never made it to equity status. It doesn’t mean that you are any less talented. There are plenty of incredible non-equity actors who are just as talented, if not, in many cases, more so, than equity.
Earning awards should not be the focus or catalyst for your endeavors. Awards like the Tonys or Grammys are in no way accurately indicative of talent (the latter of which have rendered themselves immaterial and irrelevant anyway---for God’s sake, cartoon bands have Grammys). Even if you look at those who win over those who don’t, not winning doesn’t mean that those who didn’t aren’t talented. If you are in it for the awards and the attention from “important” people, then you should reevaluate why you’re there. Not having awards doesn’t mean that you are any less talented or worthy.
If you have put the time and effort into your work, it is no less valuable than anyone else who receives more recognition on a larger scale than you do. If you put time and effort into your work, it will show, and no matter what, you can look back and see all of the things you’ve accomplished, and that’s something to be very proud of. If you take what you do seriously, it will be taken notice of. Opportunity will meet hard work. It also might not, but the salient, operative point is “hard work.”
It doesn’t mean that just because you didn’t reach your goals now that you won’t ever reach them. Vashti Bunyan (who is also from Newcastle Upon Tyne) released Just Another Diamond Day in 1970, and it didn’t receive the accolades or attention it deserved until the 2000’s. John Mahoney didn’t start acting until his late 30’s. Alison Goldfrapp and Debbie Harry didn’t achieve success until they were both 34. Agnes Obel didn’t release her first record until she was 30 years old.
Having a “Plan B” is perfectly acceptable. It doesn’t mean that you’re not good; it could only mean that someone else had more advantages than you did; not everyone has the privilege of being able to live their dreams. Not everyone or grew up in proximity or with access to wealth and financial safety nets they can fall back on if things don’t go according to plan. Not everyone had a loving and supporting family. Life happens. Sometimes, your step-father dies and you have to drop out of school to support your mother and your two sisters. Sometimes you’re not suited for the Navy, but there’s another unit that has your name on it. Sometimes Recognition and Brigadoon have other ideas. Plan B doesn’t mean that you’ve failed or are a failure. What is meant for you will come, and there is no shame in accepting what was intended for you.
Oh, and our little friend with Polio? Well, he lived! He went on to have a happy and healthy life. He never forgot my grandfather’s kindness; every year for Christmas, until my grandmother passed away in 2013, we received calendars from Newcastle from the little boy, now a man, and his family. I am most certainly sure that he appreciated that my grandfather was never in the Navy, as much as the dogs in France or the little German girl Hanna. Living a life full of kindness and love is a success. There is no kindness too small. Kindness is never wasted.
I leave you with one more anecdote.
I illustrate children’s books and make music as Le Bas-fond. I’ve received lots of accolades for my work in both fields that are very easy to get distracted by. I can give you guys a pre-big game pep talk all I want, but I am no less susceptible to feeling down about my work than anyone else. I can’t pretend that I don’t, like everyone else, suffer from crippling self-doubt. In light of lots of events from the last year, this doubt of my own abilities had been especially prevalent and in the forefront of my thoughts. Lots of really ugly and terrible things had happened to cause what ended up culminating into a partial nervous breakdown; a lot of the residual yucky feelings are still kicking around: am I enough? Is my voice good enough? Are my paintings good enough? Even, Is my body good enough?
The answer for myself is “yes.” My answer to you for the same questions is also “yes.”
Last September, when the Central México earthquake happened, it completely broke my heart. It destroyed so much in the Mexican states of Puebla and Morelos, and in the Greater Mexico City, and Puebla City. Places that my bloodline had lived for thousands of years were decimated in seconds. I watched the footage that was coming in with horror. I donated money. I wept. I prayed. I waited. I saw my grandfather’s people stop everything to help each other, students from grade school to graduate school taking time out to rescue and to help rebuild. I saw people who have next to nothing give absolutely everything they have. For weeks after many of these places had no electricity.
I distribute my music globally using CD Baby, and check my streaming stats and accounting on a daily basis; I can see who listens to what and where, and enjoy the daily geography lesson. Seven days after the 2017 Central México earthquake, something happened, and it changed my life forever.
After the earthquake, when most of places on this map didn’t have electricity, they somehow found access enough to listen to my music.
There’s nothing you can even say to that. It’s not even the kind of thing you could even hope for as an artist of any kind; it’s one of those things that happens that you didn’t know you needed until it happens. That is my definition of success. It doesn’t matter what else I go on to do artistically, I don’t think anything will ever be as beautiful or emotionally fulfilling as this. It was a moment of humility and gratitude. It, whatever it was or is, spoke. I listened. I call it my “México Moment.”
And, wouldn’t you know, and wouldn’t it work out just that way, that the song that was the one they were listening to the most would be a song I had written for my grandfather, and used a recording of his voice. (Finding that recording was another one of those moments, where things come into your life and happen exactly the way that they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to, but that’s a story for another day.)
I hope that whatever it is that you choose to pursue, artistically, or otherwise, that you have your “México Moment.” May you enjoy your life in the meantime.
It truly is a wonderful life.