My mom’s birthday is this coming Thursday (she would have been 78), so this seemed the right time to post a piece inspired by her.
This occurred to me this morning, when Ana said, “I was just thinking how grateful I am to your mom.” When I asked why, she said, “Because she gave you such unshakable confidence.” It’s true—and can you think of any greater gift one could give to a child?
For that matter, what better gift could one give to anyone than your unshakable belief in them?
That’s what this piece, from my book The Zen of MLM, is about.
I am 6 years old and I’ve just asked my mom to help me make a list of piano compositions I have learned to play so far. I’ve come up with three, maybe four, all of the two- and three-note variety. (Mozart, I am not.) She glances at the list and comments, “Away in a Manger.” I look at her with genuine astonishment. Away in a Manger?! That’s pretty advanced stuff … I can’t play that!
She says, “Sure you can.”
We sit down at the keyboard; thirty minutes later, she’s right: I can. I feel exuberant. Come to think of it, everything I’ve been able to accomplish in my life I attribute to youthful exuberance. Not mine: hers.
Fast forward seven years.
I am 13 and my mom is planning a school trip to Greece with me and about a dozen classmates. We’re going to perform Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. She says, we ought to have music for the choruses. She asks if I wouldn’t mind writing it. Just like that. Like she was asking if I wouldn’t mind doing the dishes.
But … I’m no composer! I’m 13! I can’t set Aeschylus to concert-quality music!
She says, “Sure you can.”
A few months later we are performing the music in the ancient stone amphitheater at Epidaurus—the same spot, incredibly, where the play had its premiere a few thousand years ago. A few years after that I’m at a reception at the Waldorf Astoria in New York … because I’ve won the international BMI Awards for Student Composers.
My mom was right again.
About the same time as the BMI ceremony, I’m also on the verge of doing something a little radical: I’m about to drop out of high school in order to start our own school with some friends. We’ve been talking. We’re all going to schools we hate, and one day we think, wouldn’t it be cool to start our own school, where we could actually learn something? But we’re only kids. We can’t really start our own high school … can we? And you already know what my mom has to say about that.
“Sure you can.”
We meet. We dream, talk, plan, take action. A year later we’re an independent alternative high school that goes on to send its graduates to places like Yale and Harvard.
The bumble bee, Mary Kay used to say, flies because it doesn’t realize that it can’t.
When I was young, adults would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I never knew how to answer them. I still don’t. Maybe I never grew up. But why “be” one thing? My mom had a different approach. She simply said, “You can do whatever you set out to do.” For five decades, I’ve been putting her belief to the test. If I were a high-wire performer with my mom’s philosophy as my only net, I’d still feel pretty safe.
They say children will drive you crazy asking the question, “Why?” But we know we’ve truly taught them well when we hear them ask this one: Why not?
And if you think you can’t, my mom has three words for you: Sure you can.