Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Learning Santosha


It's been another exciting month in Mama Writer Land. During these long winter nights in the upper midwest, the shadow of an old friend has appeared: Envy.

I'm sailing along just fine. I have my couple-three careers, my writing projects, and the kids, who seem to be staying out of trouble for the time being. Katja just got her acceptance letter from her first choice college, New York University. My husband, Ed, and I are enjoying each other's company, thanks to our teenagers' active social lives, and the Democrats are the majority party again.

Everything is cool, then wham, envy bursts forth like a blizzard.

The niggling feeling begins when I attend a yoga class at the center I helped open six years ago. I left it two years later to open my own space, with a vision of a nonprofit, community-based yoga school for all income levels. When I arrive for class, the yoga center is packed, the boutique filled with trendy togs. My former colleague just completed another level of certification, and now she's teaching workshops and training other teachers. This colleague began yoga studies two years after I did, and this is what she's accomplished already?

Envy rears her head and starts comparing: Look at all these people, she must be raking it in. Should I have stuck with a traditional business? Did I do the right thing venturing forth on my own? Am I less successful because my studio is small? Why am I so lazy? Why haven't I gotten my intermediate certification yet?

Then I read a newspaper article about a young friend of ours, a lacrosse star who will be attending University of Pennsylvania next year. The article features a beautiful photo of the smiling young man, whom I've known since before he was born (I was his mom's childbirth instructor) and describes his athletic and academic prowess. His family moved across the country, but for years I enjoyed a close friendship with his mom, who represents for me a road I chose not to take. She's a college professor, tenured, from old money, with a lifestyle fit for Fine Living magazine: beautiful clothes, dinner parties with expensive wines and the intellectual elite, private schools, trips to Europe. While our kids were tiny, we grubbed around together at playgrounds with peanut butter sandwiches. But I stayed grubby, while she finished her dissertation, got a great job, and returned to her elegant ways.

Here's envy again: Why didn't I go for that Ph.D.? Why am I such a slob? Whom am I fooling with my supposed "simple living" and social activism? Why not embrace class differences and accept the privileges I have coming to me? Should I have pushed my kids to apply to Ivy League schools? Will they miss out on opportunities because I'm allowing them to be lazy, like me?

Then I get an email from a good friend from graduate school whose new novel has just been released by a major publisher. It's getting great reviews; she's embarking on a national book tour. I'm thrilled for her, but you know how it goes: Did I waste my graduate degree? Am I disappointing my mentors? Am I dissipating my energy by spreading myself so thin? Why don't I have more books under my belt? Why don't I just stick to poetry, the thing I'm supposed to be good at? Why am I so lazy?

Is there no end to the itch of envy?

The old story, the narrative ingrained in our cells, teaches us that competition encourages growth. The old story pits one against another to establish hierarchy, domination, winners and losers, in an environment of scarcity. The old story says do what brings you profit and acclaim. The old story relies on the power of envy, a close cousin of shame, to spur ambition, then greed, and finally ruthlessness. But what is the new story?

One of the primary disciplines of yoga is santosha, Sanskrit for contentment. Santosha is independent of outer circumstances, but rather an inner practice. Last night, before bedtime, I take some tangled skeins of hand-dyed wool, and roll them up into balls. The rhythmic task soothes my mind, the lanolin moisturizes my winter-dry hands, and the soft, round balls of yarn are sensually pleasing. Santosha, contentment with what we have, acceptance of the hodge-podge of my odd, tangled life of writing, teaching, parenting, partnering, practicing yoga, singing, community organizing, knitting, and more.

Not that I can kick envy out of my mind forever, but I have to remind myself of what I chose, and why. So I don't have 400 yoga students a week, but I have 100 lovely and wonderful students whom I treasure. My children are not featured in the local paper, but they are well-rounded, kind, funny, smart, cool, and I couldn't be prouder of them. I don't lead an elegant life, but my world overflows with eccentrics, artists, and activists and we have great potlucks. I don't have a new book with big press but I love this column, I'm excited about a play I'm working on, and I love the teaching and speaking opportunities I'm given as Milwaukee poet laureate.

The new story is about community, cooperation, and abundance. In the new story, I am happy for my friends' accomplishments, for there is plenty for everyone.

Envy says, hmmmph.

Peggy Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hawaii and New York. She is the author of a poetry collection, Three Truths and a Lie (forthcoming, Water Press and Media); the poetry chapbooks Lies and Fables and The Sister Who Swallows the Ocean (CrowLadies Press); and a fine art letterpress book, Hoofbeats (Gokiburi Press). Poetry publications include Spoon River Poetry Review, Rhino, Bamboo Ridge, and Mothering magazine, among others. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University with a dual concentration in poetry and fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband and three children, ages 18, 16, and 13. She teaches at Alverno College and Woodland Pattern Book Center.

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Envy is natural - I experience it too. I'm just a legal assistant while my cousins are college professors and engineers. However, death is the great equalizer; we are all going to go one day. It matters how much you loved and have been loved by people in your life. Material accomplishments fade with time. That book and that huge yoga business will be just a blip in time in 20 to 50 years. What you have is more lasting. I think you have a wonderful life! You have children and appear to have a life of enjoyment. It doesn't matter how much money or accolades one earns - if one is happy with life, then that is a success. :-)
I'm green, too! And I hate it! And like you, I have no real reason to be--other than my own perceptions of where I am, versus where others seem to me to be, which I know is not a good foundation on which to build a life. I thank you for your post, and your perspective. Green is also the color of spring, I tell myself...maybe my dis-ease will bring creative rebirth!
I grew up in a very traditional family with a very traditional (and narrow) definition of what makes a successful life. I know the moments of questioning both values and sanity, and the path they have led you on. Bless your dissatisfaction with the status quo. Bless your vision, creative soul, and commitment to living a consciously chosen life. Not Far from Cool. What you have had the courage to create is the ultimate cool! Thank you for the wonderful column!
It's somehow reassuring to know that even the people I envy have envy--which reduces my envy! Thanks! One more thought--can envy motivate us to work harder for the things that benefit everyone, like social justice? Maybe that "I wish I had what she has" feeling can strengthen our resolve to accomplish real greatness. Once again, you've made me think about ways I can do better.
Not all who have "the good life" are happy and not all who do not"have the good life are lazy. The inner and outer debate of soul(what I feel) versus face(what you see). Thankfully we have choices today. Connections to others are what feed my soul. Sometimes I am at fashionable locations, though usually not when a real connection happens. One time I was standing with a child who was lost, hungry, dirty and was not wearing the winter clothes she needed. Real, too real, but when I connect to others, I am ever more enriched, though you will not see those riches on my back or read about them in a reviews. Thank you for all you do as it is much.
I like your topic and I think envy is a fascinating subject. While we cannot reliably gauge someone else's life, envy tells us a lot about ourselves. But I laughed when I read your description of your college professor friend: "tenured, from old money, with a lifestyle fit for Fine Living magazine: beautiful clothes, dinner parties with expensive wines and the intellectual elite, private schools, trips to Europe." As a professor myself (tenured, but not from old money) my life of grading papers, writing essays few people will read, getting inordinately excited over a 2% raise, and hoping to be able to afford a state school for my daughter does not feel glamorous! I always enjoy your columns!
Maybe your beautiful "new story" isn't so new. Maybe we've been too deaf to listen to those that came before and knew what it meant to truly succeed because money, publicity and material rewards are part of our culture of immediate gratification. Because all of those things are concrete and tangible. Your post made me think of one of my favorite quotes from quite possible my favorite American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said: "To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." May you continue to enjoy your success :)
I envy you! You said something that I often say after a rant about why someone else is doing better than I am. "Why am I so lazy"? I often wonder if the people I envy ever waste time. I am sure they do but I assume they always have goals set with plans on how to achieve them. I think the envy comes from not having a clear goal and working towards that goal.
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