Live large. Love more. Embrace life.
Anna Quindlen said those words Wednesday in Omaha from a church altar, a proper place if ever there was one for a woman I long have worshipped.
Like a lot of prophets before her, the accomplished writer said things that were uncomfortable. For me at least.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times columnist, who has written more than a dozen books, including one made into a feature film starring Meryl Streep, could have spent the hour talking about her familiar turf of religion or politics.
Instead, my idol talked about what she sees in her rearview mirror at age 62. She discussed having the life you choose without sacrificing your dreams or driving yourself crazy trying to do it all. She described finding joy in her writing and personal life, showing her children by example how to live your passion.
This means she missed work calls — her 7-year-old once told Jesse Jackson that his mother was unavailable because she was making dinner. It also meant she didn’t sign her kids up for soccer, preferring weekends at home with plenty of downtime for everyone.
In contrast, Quindlen sees a modern “manic motherhood” of overscheduled families with harried, hovering moms who are doing no one a service, least of all themselves.
“In my religion,” said Quindlen, a cradle Catholic, “martyrs die.”
She discussed modern mothers running ragged on a life that is somewhere between a decathlon and Stations of the Cross. She described fathers who still get too much credit for showing up to change a diaper or “babysit.”
Quindlen lamented the American rush to have it all — only to have nothing. She talked about what it means to age and be happy and find fulfillment in her three now-grown children who tell her: Mom, our childhood was FUN.
Put THAT on my headstone, she told 970 people gathered at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church at 150th and West Maple.
Most of what Quindlen addressed during that hourlong talk for Omaha Town Hall Lecture Series had to do with motherhood. Of losing her own mother to cancer when she was just 19. Of trying to be more present for her kids. Of warning audience members that today’s young women tell her that they don’t want to “have it all.”
This was touchier territory for me, with three grade-school age children and a sense that I’m cheating on them with a job and cheating on the job with them. And with my mother sitting a row behind me for this talk — it was she who bought me my first Anna Quindlen book — I could hear, in Quindlen’s wisdom, my own mother’s voice.
So in some ways I would have preferred to hear Quindlen dish — as she did in an interview and a private dinner with several dozen Town Hall supporters — on Pope Francis, Donald Trump and gay rights.
On religion: How does Quindlen, who wrote about leaving the church in her 2012 memoir “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” feel about Pope Francis?
“Like a woman who has sworn off romance, (declaring) ‘I’m finally done with men!’ ” Quindlen told me. “Then (she) gets on a bus and meets Mr. Right.”
On politics: What would she write about Trump?
Quindlen said at dinner that his candidacy “reveals something really ugly and unfortunate about the American character.”
She said Trump couldn’t sell his “snake oil” to Democrats, a party to which he once belonged. And now, she said, he is selling it to Republicans. She said she yearns for a serious discussion between two substantive candidates who can explain to voters the real differences between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.
“None of that is going to happen while Donald Trump is sucking the oxygen out of the room,” she said.
The strong political talk at Tuesday’s dinner seemed to change the oxygen in a room that held at least a few conservatives.
Some people frowned at her and one woman at my table whispered: “Doesn’t she know where she is?”
But Quindlen showed she still had her op-ed writer’s thick skin.
When one woman asked Quindlen whether she’d ever considered redoing a column based on reader reaction, Quindlen said definitively that she would never rewrite any of her columns.
She said op-ed columnists can’t be worried about readers who disagree. She described how columns she wrote in the early 1990s favoring gay rights drew mean-spirited complaints that “would have taken the paint off the walls.”
Yet she also heard from a reader who said her columns on the subject helped him come out as a gay man.
“If I never write another word,” she said, “that will be worth it.”
She called being a Times op-ed writer — she was the third woman to hold that distinction — “the best job on Earth.” Yet she left that job to write novels full time. Her departure was criticized by women who felt she was abandoning ship and by men who said she was afraid of success.
“I’m not afraid of success,” Quindlen said. “I’m afraid of living a life that belongs to someone else.”
She later wrote every-other-week columns for Newsweek while also producing books.
On Wednesday, Quindlen spent more time talking about the need to downsize, slow down and be present. To notice the red squirrel on your morning run. To notice how the loon swoops into the Hudson River and disappears beneath the surface, only to magically pop out of the water and into the sky.
She told us how her dying mother wrote the words of St. Paul on an index card: If I do not have love, I have nothing.
She quoted Henry James, who said there are three things in life that are important: First, be kind. Second, be kind. Third, be kind.
Afterwards, my own mom said she was glad the writer steered clear of religion and politics because those topics might have turned off audience members who needed to hear Quindlen’s bigger message. That life is short. That you ought to grab it while you can and appreciate it. And that there’s something to be said for being happy.
“What she had to say,” said my 71-year-old mother, “was too important.”