A Letter To My Mother On Ambition

"I want, before you die, for you to feel at rest, to feel you’ve accomplished enough. To look around at this earth and say: It was good."
05/04/2017 11:29 am ET Updated May 15, 2017
Sarah Ruhl

Double Bind: Women on Ambition is a new anthology featuring essays from a formidable constellation of writers including Ayana Mathis, Roxane Gay, Francine Prose, Theresa Rebeck, and others, each exploring what ambition means to them. Below, HuffPost has an exclusive excerpt of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s essay, in which she addresses her mother about the relationship of mission to ambition, and the legacy her mother will leave behind.

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Dear Mom,

Today you called me on the phone and I said, “How are you?” and you said, “Okay,” and I heard a hesitation and I said, “Why only okay?” You said, “Well, I am still having trouble with a sense of what my mission is in life.”

You are seventy-two. I am forty-one. What could I possibly have to say to you about mission and ambition and mothers and daughters. This is a conversation we’ve been having since I was ten years old.

I have always been terrified of the word ambition. I find it distasteful, menacing, as though it was always pursued by its invisible compound partner “blind”—blind ambition. If someone asks me, “Do you like him or her?” and I answer, “He or she is—‘ambitious,’ ” I am making a polite backhanded insult. I am saying that I have met a young person who seems more interested in a career or money or power and plunder or in scaling mountains than in the thing itself, the work. I treasure people who do the work itself for the sake of the work, and I am afraid of ambition. It stinks of oiled-up leather boots and money and calculators and corpses of friends cast aside—of the specific attempt to do better than others. But perhaps there is something to scrape away at, to investigate. Why do I fear the word ambition? Is it because I am secretly ambitious? Is it because I am a woman? Is it because I grew up in an Irish Catholic family and you were taught to keep your head down, to be wary of strivers?

My friend Emily Morse, the artistic director of New Dramatists, talks of focusing on the idea of mission rather than ambition. What happens if we take the “amb” out of “mission”? What is an “amb”? The second foot of an iamb. “Amb,” pertaining to walking. Does the “amb” in ambition make the mission move? Is the missing “amb” a way in which a mission feels stuck, stagnant, not moving?

But I digress. You, my mother, called me today. You spoke to me of feeling a lack of mission, not ambition. I was in a taxi on the way to an appointment to get my blood drawn and my urine collected so that I could get life insurance in case I drop dead and still need to take care of my children somehow after I am dead.

What is a mission and what is an ambition, and what if we have one but not both?

All my life you were doing something. You were grading English papers, you were in a play, you were gardening, you were driving me somewhere, you were reading, you were planning, you were directing a play. You were in motion and seemed interested in playing as it lays. You did not have a plan—an ambition—to get to x or y place before you were thirty, before you were forty. You took pleasure in the tasks before you. I thought this was good. I thought this made you who you were—warm, and in motion.

Now that you are seventy-two there are fewer tasks before you demanding your attention. When you are in a play, I find that you often have a sense of mission. Every night there is something before you. But you are in a play now and still you feel your sense of mission waning. Is it because theater is transitory and you want to leave something behind? Is it because the contemporary theater itself lacks a mission? Or is theater not enough, you want a legacy? I once asked you if it was not enough that you had two daughters, one who wrote plays and one who was a doctor, if that counted as a legacy, and you said, “Not really, that is not mine. It is yours.”

What is a mission and what is an ambition, and what if we have one but not both? And does having one make us a nice little missionary and does having the other one make us a bitch? When my sister was in medical school one of her professors told her she’d make a good surgeon. “What does that mean?” my sister asked my uncle (a doctor), and he said: “It means he thinks you’re a bitch.”

Mom, you grew up in the fifties. The feminist movement came along just as you were having babies. You were not part of any consciousness-raising groups. You did not look at your vagina while you were standing over mirrors. You did not talk about how you would infiltrate the patriarchy. You served on the PTA. You made us lunches. On my brown-bagged lunch, you would make little drawings, and a small crossword puzzle of my name. This comforted me when I felt lonely in the cafeteria. You read us Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and did funny voices. You took our temperatures. You made us chicken soup and baked potatoes. You knitted us sweaters and recited the words of absurdist playwrights. You made us laugh.

I want, before you die, for you to feel at rest, to feel you’ve accomplished enough. To look around at this earth and say: It was good.

And I wonder if that counts as a mission or ambition—to want fullness or satisfaction for your parents or your children. Can ambition be directed toward others, and involve satisfaction and rest? Or does ambition only count as checking things off your own list and moving ever forward? An ambulatory kind of mission. Scaling heights. Making progress.

I want, before you die, for you to feel at rest, to feel you’ve accomplished enough. To look around at this earth and say: It was good.

Some people have never seen a mountain they don’t want to climb. I don’t wish to climb mountains. I see a mountain and I think: That’s pretty. I have no wish to climb that. What after all do you do after you climb a mountain? You climb back down. And you find a bigger one to climb. That repetitive striving does not appeal to me. Maybe it’s because I get altitude sickness. Or maybe it’s because I’m lazy. Or maybe it’s because I prefer water. I see a body of water, and I want to swim in it. Maybe swimming is more like a mission—being immersed in a task in which you are held, surrounded by the task, inside consciousness, wading, forgetting everything but for the task—and scaling a mountain feels more Austrian and ambitious. However, I spoke to a rock climber recently and asked him why he climbs rocks, and he said it was for the same reason I like to be in water—because it puts him at the very edge of a moment.

So I must dispense with a metaphor that is beginning to sound essentialist, as if I’m speaking of watery vaginas and tall penises. And who cares about anatomy, really. Anatomy is tiresome. Men, women, women, men, women becoming men, men becoming women, and everything in between, I celebrate this, I say yes to this, and I think, yes, let’s all become each other! But forget anatomy. Let’s just be kind.

You, my mother, enjoy thinking. You like to contemplate, you are worried that death will be without consciousness, you worry about leaving it all behind. I wonder if your worry about mission is really a worry about leaving consciousness behind. What if consciousness persisted somehow? If that was not a worry, would there still be something you wished you had done? What would that thing be?

You have done so much but in your mind it does not add up. How many plays have you been in? More than a hundred, I’m sure. Joan of Arc, Peter Pan, Dull Gret—all these women and boys you’ve been for the sheer pleasure of doing it. Does it only count if you’re in the midst? Does it only count if something is left behind? What is permanent? Words, works? Children? Education? How many young women have you educated? The Odyssey that you poured into young women’s minds at Regina Dominican High School, the Dickens you poured into their often-disinterested minds? What of your PhD? Captured over the age of fifty, scaling the theoreticians while almost bowled over with grief over your husband’s early death? Does that count? Does making sure your daughters grew up solid after their father died count? Would fame count? Everything perishes eventually; it’s only a matter of degrees.

Apparently, we don’t get to take anything with us. Not our children, not our fame. We go alone. Our sense of mission or ambition sustains us during our lifetime, and then if we’re lucky, we go on to the next lifetime.

What if our mission was, as the critic Walter Pater put it, “not to sleep before evening”? He writes:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us—for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us . . . is to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendor of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.

Does Pater’s vision count as ambition or mission? You have done what Walter Pater asks your whole life, do you know that? You are probably doing it even now. Please don’t be sad, Mom. You’ve had a mission all along.

Love,

Sarah

Excerpted from Double Bind: Women on Ambition edited by Robin Romm. Copyright © 2017 by Robin Romm. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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