In 2020, I attended a commemoration of Mary Oliver’s life at the 92nd Street Y with my sister. The entire program was deeply moving, with celebrities, politicians, and writers reciting her poems and sharing a bit about how and why Oliver had changed their lives, and a recording of Mary Oliver reading “Wild Geese” that left the auditorium pin-drop-silent. But one moment that unexpectedly grabbed me by the heart was when the emcee for the evening recognized Oliver’s late-life caregiver, who stood reluctantly in the third row to a standing ovation. How beautiful to have a room full of poetry-lovers celebrating not only Oliver but the woman who had stood quietly at her bedside, and bathed and fed and clothed her, when Oliver could not. How rare to celebrate the people that stand behind the curtain.
I shared that memory on Instagram a few weeks ago and one Magpie responded:
“Main character energy is such a buzz word and is used with such positive connotation. But as a shy observer type, I think the supporting actress role really makes the movie.”
I loved this perspective, and I’ve been chewing on its since. On the one hand, as I wrote recently, I don’t want anyone to feel as if she is sitting in the nose bleeds for her own life. This is my one wild and precious life — let me live it, not visit it! (Not that the Magpie was suggesting this, exactly — but just setting some table stakes.) On the other hand, I think a true woman of substance “can give herself to others without self-diminishment or self-projection. She can listen without interjecting her own story; she can marvel without battling jealousy; she can endure unkindnesses without questioning herself. She does not need the last word, the biggest laugh, the adulation, the apology: she is full without the feedback. She stands still in her center.” Which is to say, she can also take the back seat, or the supporting role, when life requests it of her. There have absolutely been phases of my life as well as personal and professional dynamics that have called me to ride in the passenger seat. I’ve learned a lot from those situations, and they have enabled me to empower people I love and/or admire to do great things. This might mean moving where your spouse finds a job, saying no to an opportunity because it will not accommodate your children’s schedules, or showing up to support a friend’s small business time after time, or serving as the peacemaker in the family — to name a few examples. I know for a fact that I have been the beneficiary of people playing “supporting actor / actress” for me. I am thinking especially of Mr. Magpie, who carried the financial burden for our family for many years so that I could write full-time. I am thinking also of my mother, who set aside her love of being a Montessori school teacher to work inside the home caring for my four siblings and I, and of each of my siblings, for that matter, who have repeatedly, in matters small and large, said: “It’s OK, Jen, you can have it.”
Perhaps true humility is knowing when to cede the leading actress role: when to take center stage and when to stand waiting in the wings. Maybe life is finding this balance, and what feels balanced for one may not feel balanced for another.
What do you think, Magpies? Do you find yourself shifting between roles, or do you see yourself more permanently as a supporting actress?
+Sometimes a little tenderness is the best that I can do.
+More on main character energy.
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